Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It was Christmas Eve Babe in the Drunk Tank

... or at least it felt like it by the time I left the pub - Skehans on Kitto Road. It's a good local pub, and not surprizingly was crowded with people of all ages on the night before Christmas. Keith Richards lookalike Steve Boltz was playing a set of mainly sixties songs, from Arnold Layne to Dylan's She Belongs to Me.

Earlier on the jukebox they'd been playing some good music - including Egyptian Reggae by Jonathan Richman - and some terrible music - including Donny Osmond and the Bay City Rollers. The latter reminded me of the strangest encounter I've had in that pub - a couple of years ago I had a drunken conversation with somebody who claimed to have just missed out on fame with the Bay City Rollers as he'd been in a band with them all before they became successful. Must admit I was sceptical, but when I checked later I found that the details (names etc.) he'd given me were all correct. So maybe his story that not long before he'd brought an old friend for a drink in Skehans was also true - none other than Les McKeown himself, former teenage heart-throb and BCR lead singer. What next, David Cassidy in the Hobgoblin?

Well that was Christmas Eve. Not sure of final New Year's Eve plans but I know I'm not planning to spend too much time outside in this temperature. Will probably make it up to Telegraph Hill Park for midnight - if you haven't been there before, there's usually quite a crowd at the park's highest point by the tennis courts watching fireworks going off all over London. Not sure when this started - it's definitely been happening every year since the turn of 2000, but I can't remember whether it was happening before that.

It's also the closing party at Moonbow Jakes in Brockley tonight, sad occasion, New Year's Day will see that place empty.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Fire at St Catherine's, Hatcham, 1913 - a Suffragette attack?

[post updated, 15 March 2021]

St Catherine's Church at the top of Pepys Road was seriously damaged in a fire on May 6 1913. At the time it was widely reported that campaigners for votes for women had started the fire. The photo below from the New York Times, May 18 1913, was accompanied by an article which stated that the fire was caused 'presumably by a suffragette “arson squad”'.

The report in The Times includes the vicar, Rev. Howard Truscott, blaming the fire on 'the work of suffragists or of incendiaries':

London Church Burned - Cause of the fire unknown (Times, May 7 1913) 'The church of St. Catherine, Hatcham, situated in Pepys-road, New Cross, was practically destroyed by fire shortly after noon yesterday, and the damage, which is partially covered by insurance, is estimated at several thousand pounds. The walls and centre-arches are not seriously injured, and it is hoped that little will have to be expended in their restoration. At half-past eleven the vicar, the Rev. H.J.H. Truscott, visited the church and found everything as usual, but half an hour later he was amazed to see the building in flames. He states that the gas was turned off securely and that the heating apparatus had not been used for a fortnight. This would lead to the belief that the fire was the work of an incendiary, and it has been suggested that suffragists are responsible…. The church occupies a commanding position at the top of Pepys-road, and is a landmark for many miles around. It was erected about 20 years ago at a cost of £18,000 by the Haberdashers Company… 

The fire was first noticed from Aske’s school by an employee who immediately gave the alarm. The vicar hurried to the building with the intention of saving the more valuable ornaments and furniture, but the flames were so fierce in the chancel that he was obliged to give up the idea of entering that part of the church. He was able, however, to get into the vestry, from which he removed the registers and church documents to a place of safety…. The sight of the burning church attracted large crowds. The firemen were greatly handicapped in their work owing to the fact that the water had to be pumped a considerable distance up the hill… About 5 o’clock the fire was under control, and when the firemen were able to enter the building it was apparent that the outbreak occurred near the organ… The side chapel was practically intact and also the stained-glass windows, which are situated at the far end of the building. Many of the oak pews in this part of the church had not been burnt. The vicar informed a newspaper representative that he was convinced that the outbreak was the work of suffragists or of incendiaries. He said “ Last night I noticed two women and a man hanging about outside the church, although there had been no service. I went away for a short time and when I returned they were still there”'.

The crowd views the ruins. From Diane Atkinson, The Suffragettes in Pictures, 
Museum of London, 1976

Fire brigade inside the church, Daily Mirror, 7 May 1913

Update March 2021 - while it is clear that suffragettes were widely blamed for the fire at the time, nobody seems to have been prosecuted for this and until recently I wondered whether it could have been a convenient story to distract from other possible causes, such as negligence. I had not found any mention of it in the suffrage press. However  I have now found the fire included in an end of year summary of 'the more serious attacks on property which have been attributed to Suffragettes during the year 1913' (Suffragette, 26 December 1913). This refers to 'St Catherine's Church, Hatcham, burned down', on the day when a Woman Suffrage Bill was defeated in the House of Commons. The very next day a bomb was found in St Paul's Cathedral and a week later St Anne's Church in Eastbourne was damaged . This was a period when suffragettes started fires in public buildings, including churches where clergy were seen as hostile to their cause. It does then seem highly likely that the St Catherine's fire was caused by suffragettes.

'The Suffragette, 26 December 1913 - read full issue at LSE Archive

Some doubt was cast on this at the time One contemporary account stated 'Mysterious fire not traced to suffragists', and reported that 'investigations failed to reveal any trace of the Suffragists having been in the building, and the fire brigade officials appeared to disregard the suggestion as highly improbable' (Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 9 May 1913). However, a couple of weeks later the Evening News reported that 'a copy of the Suffragette for April 25 was found thrust between the leaves of some music in the organ loft, where the fire undoubtedly started' (Evening News, 24 May 1913).

In a strange twist to the story, the vicar received widespread publicity for later claiming that in the previous year he had received a letter from an astrologer in Paris warning that 'In May 1913, on the 6th, you will lose something particularly dear to you'. He also drew attention to the 'strange escape' of a book during the fire: 'The strangest incident, in Mr Truscott's view, is the manner in which the keepsake, a valuable Service book on the vicar's table, escaped destruction. Conducting The Evening News representative into the ruined building, the vicar pointed to an unburned spot on the desk in front of his own charred and blackened seat. Though the edges of the desk itself were blackened all round, one little space in the centre preserved unharmed a paper pasted on the wood giving a list of notes for services. On this paper the book had rested, and in the midst of the fire and the deluge of water had sustained no damage. Not a spot marred its crimson cover, and the leaves were as clean as though the volume had been purchased yesterday'  ('The Astrologer's warning: remarkable coincidence in Hatcham Church Fire', Evening News, 24 May 1913).

Front page news in Daily Mirror, 7 May 2013 -  'Fire yesterday practically destroyed St Catherine's Hatcham, one of the finest and largest churches in South London. Locally, it is being asked, "Is it the work of suffragettes?" and the vicar, the Rev. H.J.H. Truscott, who is a relative of Sir George Wyatt Truscott, a former Lord Mayor of London, is certain that incendiarism has been committed... The building crowns Pepys-road, New Cross, and it is a conspicuous landmark in South London'

Monday, December 29, 2008

Mods in South London

Where were the South East London mod clubs?

A friend (Mick H.) has told me that he used to go El Partido club in Lewisham (8-10 Lee High Road) in the 1960s, a place he remembers being frequented mainly by young Jamaicans as well as some local white mods. King Ossie Sound played out there regularly. Other guests included Jimmy Cliff and the Duke Reid Sound System from Jamaica (both in 1966) and Bo Diddley in 1965.

George Austin recalls at Ska2Soul: 'music was a mix of Ska, Blue Beat and American Soul/Motown. The Club was on two floors, it had a small stage and very low ceilings just the place for live acts. Usually with two sound systems, one on each floor. Upstairs Duke Reid played with his home made sound system tucked away in a small corner, it was a large box, stood about chest height, which housed the amp with a single record deck on top. It had a selection of small lights on the front. The sound was turned down at the end of each record as it was removed and replaced with another disc, a large record box stocked with the latest sounds stood by the side, it's lid open displaying the contents. Speakers stacked up to the ceiling in each open room, pumping out the sound, using about 200 watts. The smell of hash in the air people dancing everywhere'.

There was also the Savoy Rooms in Catford (75 Rushey Green), originally a 1950s ballroom and known in the 1960s as the Witchdoctor. At some point the downstairs was named Mr Smiths, and I've also seen it referred to as the Black Cat - a later incarnation? The Rolling Stones, The Who (April 1966) and Desmond Dekker (1969) all played there. There is a delightful poem called The Savoy Rooms by Marie Marshall, in which she recalls being 'thirteen trying for sixteen in the court of the mohair miniskirt'. In March 1966, a man was shot dead in the club in a gangland battle involving members of the Richardson gang (including Frankie Fraser)

I've also seen mention of the Glenlyn ballroom in Forest Hill (15 Perry Vale - later Crystals Snooker Club) - the Kinks, Stones, Byrds and The Who all played there too.

Interested if anyone's got any memories of these or other places - happy to host any scanned photos, flyers or newspaper clippings people may have lying around too.

See related posts:

The Who in South London
The Mistrale Club in Beckenham - 1960s/1970s
The Green Man in Blackheath - 1960s jazz, r'n'b and Manfred Mann
The Fellowship Inn in Bellingham
Soul City record shop in Deptford

‘God, it's so f**king Croydon!'

My previous post on Kirsty MacColl got me thinking about Croydon and one of my previous posts on the subject, Suburban Relapse. Checking out the links on the latter I realized that a key article referred to no longer exists - since it was on Tony Malone's late lamented now deleted Slightly Lost in the World blog. Anyway I've found a copy of it on the useful Internet Archive, so have decided to republish it as written by Tony in September 2005:

Ok, After my post about Brockley where I live, I decided to do one about the soulless, concrete homage to pure capitalism that occupies a rather innocent spot hidden behind Crystal Palace on the south edge of London. Croydon. Where, I am ashamed to admit, I have my design studio.

Kirsty MacColl, whom grew up in Croydon, once added it as number 5 in her top 50 things she hates, adding she hoped it would all be "blown up" someday. David Bowie said in an interview in 1999: “It was my nemesis, I hated Croydon with a real vengeance. It represented everything I didn't want in my life, everything I wanted to get away from. I think it's the most derogatory thing I can say about somebody or something: ‘God, it's so f**king Croydon!’”.

If asked my own quote on Croydon would be along the lines of: "Concrete, Suburbia and Nestle! such an uninspiring combination" or words to similar effect. After such recommendations, I decided it was not worth investigating further, but I did anyway...

Croydon, originally the seat of the Arch Bishop, and an important city in Surrey, was only officially part of London in 1965, when the London boundaries we're widened as the city grew in the post war boom, a previous expansion in boundary in the early 1900s saw areas such as Deptford and Peckham join London from leaving Surrey, so this process is nothing new.

Old Croydon is all but gone. The area was devastated during world war one and two, as it's nearby airfields and munitions factories were targeted. The 50s, 60s and 70s saw croydon reborn as a concrete new town, quickly establishing itself as a center for commerce and trade. Being located on several rail mainlines and it's "new" architecture made it attractive for large multi-national companies to settle there. (Even east croydon station is branded with "Welcome to Croydon, The home of Nestlé", as if you needed further warning.)

Croydon Council, despite being landlocked and with no more than the odd stream, still operate a LifeBoat service, maybe in case anyone should want to rebuild the once heavily used, Croydon Canal, which I'll blog about in the future, as it turns out my own back garden in Brockley was once the site of the Lock Keepers cottage 200 years ago! Unimaginable now!

Croydon's saving graces are it's fun Tram Network, my studio, and 'South End' the most densely populated area for restaurants in the UK. (over 200 in under a mile)I'm perhaps being a bit harsh, Croydon is updating itself, new facilities are being added, it's shopping is a quite good, and less busy, alternative to the west end, offering the same variety of shops and three shopping centers. Ikea is there, which perhaps is its saving grace.

It's other, and to be honest, the reason I don't mind working there, is it is home to the best cycling shop in london. Geoffrey Butler Cycles, a racing and road bike specialist. And where most of my wages end up going!

Kirsty MacColl

It's that time of year when Kirsty MacColl's voice seems to be coming out of every radio and pub jukebox, singing along with Shane MacGowan on The Pogues' Fairytale of New York. It's also a time to remember her tragic death, killed by a speedboat while swimming with her kids in Mexico on 18 December 2000.

A compilation released after her death is entitled 'From Croydon to Cuba', and she did indeed grow up in South London in Beech Way, Selsdon, going to Monks Hill Comprehensive School (later re-named Selsdon High School). She started out in a pub rock band, the Tooting Frootis, later re-named The Drug Addix. The latter put out a 1978 EP on Chiswick Records which includes the South-London suburb referencing Addington Shuffle. It was recorded at RMS Studios in Clifton Road, Thornton Heath, which Kirsty later used for some solo material (incidentally The Monochrome Set and St Etienne also recorded there).

Her final album, the Latin-infused Tropical Brainstorm (2000) was also partially recorded in South London, at her long-time collaborator Pete Glenister's studio in Bermondsey.

Kirsty had an ambivalent relationship with her father, the folk singer Ewan MacColl, as he split up with her mother shortly after her birth. But it is clear that the adult influences on her childhood included some interesting people who lived in South East London at the time. Most important was her mother Jean Newlove (married name Jean MacColl), a dance teacher who had been assistant to Rudolph Laban (later the inspiration for the Laban Centre in Deptford). Ewan MacColl and his new partner Peggy Seeger lived in Cromwell Road, Beckenham. Also signficant was Kirsty's godmother, Joan Littlewood, who had founded the Theatre Workshop with Ewan. She lived in Blackheath and used to take Kirsty for walks in Greenwich Park.

An MA scholarship in Kirsty's name was established at Goldsmiths College in 2001.

Anyway here's Kirsty with the Pogues on St Patrick's Day 1988 (at the Town & Country Club in Camden):

Source for most of the above: Kirsty MacColl: the one and only by Karen O'Brien (2004). Incidentally this book includes a photo entitled 'Kirsty... with the Drug Addix at the Venue, New Cross, south London, 1978'. I'm pretty sure the Venue wasn't called by this name until the end of the 80s - previously it was the Harp Club. So presumably this is a mistake - there was also a place called The Venue in Victoria around that time, maybe the photo was taken there.

See also: Suburban relapse; Shiraz Socialist on Kirsty.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Waiting for the wall to fall

I've been to a couple of cold places this year - to Berlin in October and to Crystal Palace park this morning. But it's not just the climate they have in common. Both also feature monstrous blocks of concrete decorated by graffiti artists in an attempt to humanise them. The difference is that one was installed by a repressive regime to control people moving from one part of the city to the other - the other seems to have no purpose at all. Can anyone explain the Crystal Palace 'wall'?
The Crystal Palace 'Wall'

The Berlin Wall

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mr J.G. Reeder of Brockley

Mr J.G. Reeder is the private detective hero of a number of stories by the phenomenally popular inter-war novelist Edgar Wallace. Reeder is an expert in financial crime who proclaims himself to 'have the mind of a criminal', all the better to move through the murky underworld of 1920s London.

Perhaps of most interest to Transpontine readers, he lives on Brockley Road. In fact the fictional location can be narrowed down further, as we are told that from the window of his home, the Daffodil House, 'he regarded a section of the Lewisham High Road and as much of Tanners Hill as can be seen before it dips past the railway bridge into sheer Deptford'.

J.G. Reeder is a fan of 'transpontine drama' no less, liking nothing more than a melodrama where 'to the thrill of the actors' speeches was added the amazing action of wrecked railway trains, hair raising shipwrecks and terrific horse-races'.

He is also enamoured of his Brockley neighbour, Miss Margaret Belman who he treats to a guided tour of South London: 'They crossed Westminster Bridge and bore left to the New Kent Road. Through the rain-blurred windows J. G. picked up the familiar landmarks and offered a running commentary upon them in the manner of a guide. Margaret had not realised before that history was made in South London. "There used to be a gibbet here-this ugly-looking goods station was the London terminus of the first rail­ways- Queen Alexandra drove from there when she came to be married - the thoroughfare on the right after we pass the Canal bridge is curiously named Bird-in-Bush Road..."'.

As for the neighbourhood, 'if there is one place in the world which is highly respectable and free from the footpads which infest wealthier neighbourhoods, it is Brockley Road'.

Edgar Wallace knew the area well. He was born in Greenwich (at 7 Ashburnham Grove) in 1875 as the child of an unmarried actress Pollie Richards, and then brought up by adoptive parents in Deptford. There is an Edgar Wallace Close in Peckham, where he went to school. He was one of the creators of the King Kong story.

All quotes from The Mind of J.G. Reeder (1925). There is also a second collection of stories, Mr J.G. Reeder Returns, which I haven't read. The Mind of... was made into a film in 1939, as well as as a 1960s TV series.

Writing on the Wall

Seemingly a revival of political graffiti in the area. Adverts for the new KitKat senses bar have been defaced at various points in SE London, including this example in Adelaide Avenue - now featuring the slogan 'Riot not Diet! Give us a break' (see Green Ladywell and Blackheath Bugle for others). The objection is to the advertising slogan 'Good will to all women: 165 calories', rephrased by one critic as Merry Christmas you fat cows, love from Nestle.

Meanwhile in New Cross I spotted two painted renditions of the slogan 'Solidarity with the Greek popular uprising' this week, at the bottom of Pepys Road and Jerningham Road. Both have already been removed, but possibly prompted some travellers on the A2 to ponder events in Greece since the shooting dead by police of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos on 6th December.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

London Prayers

I've noticed a number of notices around New Cross inviting people to a 'Neighbourhood Prayer Watch' at the Barnes Wallis Centre. It says 'Come and pray for God to take control of the welfare of the Kender area, from gun, knife and other crimes common in London'. With a 13 year old arrested in New Cross for possessing a gun I can understand their motivation, even if I think that it's people's action rather than divine intervention that will make a difference. Still I guess even an atheist could accept that a prayer can be a collective affirmation of a wish, and therefore a step towards people trying to put this wish into practice.

When I saw Jon Savage's recent Joy Division documentary I was struck by the words of the Civic Prayer for Manchester: "Grant us, O God, a vision of our City, fair as she might be; a city of justice, where none shall prey on others; a city of plenty, where poverty shall cease to fester; a city in community, where success shall be founded on service, and honour be given to worth alone; a city of peace, where order shall not rest on force, but on mutual respect. Hear the silent prayer of our hearts as we each pledge our time and strength and thought to speed the day of her coming beauty and righteousness.”

It made me wonder if there are similar prayers for London, or even for particular areas like Deptford. In his excellent book Night Haunts, Sukhdev Sandhu describes the nuns at Tyburn Convent praying for London's souls in their Night Adoration vigil every evening. But it is not just Christians who pray for the protection of the city and its people - I am told for instance that members of the Pagan Federation performed a 2004 London protection ritual that involved driving a candle round the M25 (they also did something on the circle line, with a broom instead of a candle). In the same year, Dragon Environmental Network did something similar at Green Angels in Southwark, creating a London protection bindrune (pictured). There was also a Hindu protection mantra and prayers from Jews, Muslims and others at a vigil for the victims of the 2005 London bombs.
So are there any South London specific prayers (e.g. blessings for particular places)? They could be from any spiritual tradition or even secular humanist verses.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Moonbow Jakes: an appreciation

According to Brockley Central, Moonbow Jakes coffee shop/bar in Brockley may be closing - although it doesn't seem certain. John (the owner) has been at it for seven years or more so if he fancies doing something else or if it's no longer working out for him, that's his decision. But Moonbow has had a positive impact not only on Brockley but on New Cross and (briefly) on Catford, and would certainly be a loss to the area if it closed.

The first Moonbow Jakes was in New Cross Gate, on the corner of Goodwood Road where the Rising Sun Cafe is now. The (in)famous 2004 Standard article 'Welcome to the New Hoxton', referred to the 'legendary Moonbow Jakes's cafe, the main young artists hang-out where you can sip segrafredo coffee (the best espresso beans from Italy, apparently)'. Well I wasn't a young artist, but I did hang out there, especially when it also had the record shop downstairs. Both had a small but significant role in the New Cross music explosion, as places to meet, chat and distribute/pick up flyers.

The New Cross place was still open when the second Moonbows opened in Brockley, but closed soon after - I believe there were planning constraints in turning the former into a viable bar as well as a coffee shop. The much larger Brockley place with its later evening opening has been a place not only of liquid refreshment but of numerous interesting encounters and occurrences, with music, performance and other events. Our very own Skitster gave a talk there in 2006 on Ghosts and Monsters of South East London, and the year before I gave a short talk there on the history of May Day in South London as part of a Strawberry Thieves May Day event.

Moonbows bravely attempted to extend the decent coffee wave into Catford too. The cafe there didn't last too long, and closed in 2005 - but not before it had been name-checked in a song by local band The Ubernators (then at Haberdashers Askes school I believe). Their song 'Tell it Like it is' starts with the line 'Catford born and Catford bred, no not Lewisham that's what I said' and goes on 'we used to have a gun shop now we're Moonbow Jakes' (Moonbow Catford was indeed in a former gun shop).

People may argue about who does the best coffee in Brockley, as unlike when Moonbow opened we now have a choice. As I like the other places too, I'm not going to compare - my experience is that most places locally with an espresso machine can do a really good coffee (though not always consistently). But one thing that Moonbow has had the edge on is its choice of music - if, like me, you judge a place's music by how many times it plays The Smiths or Belle & Sebastien!

Anyway this is an appreciation, not an obituary, so get down there while you still can - and maybe help keep it open for longer. I am sure we haven't heard the last of Moonbow Jakes.

Download Ubernators - Tell it Like it Is

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Savage Messiah Launch in Peckham

Savage Messiah is a London zine by Laura Oldfield Ford, each issue featuring her drawings and psychogeographical reflections on a city of squats, punk, free parties and urban dereliction. She is doing a series of events to launch Issue 10 ‘Abandoned London: drifting through the ruins’, including one tomorrow (Wednesday December 17th) at the squatted London and Brighton pub, Queens Road, Peckham, SE15 .

It's part of a wider event happening there tomorrow, Find Yourself Lost in the Neutral Zone. There's live bands (including English Martyrs and Social Reform) performance, art, short films, zine stalls and food and drink from 2 pm to 1 am.

Monday, December 15, 2008

South London Redhead Insurgency

2009 will be the year when red-headed young women from South London conquer the world.

First up, there's La Roux, featuring Eleanor Jackson from Brixton. She pronounces herself 'totally obsessed with 80s music'. You don't say! The video for their Quicksand single even looks like a Duran Duran pastiche.

Then from Camberwell, there's Florence and The Machine. I've mentioned Florence Welch here before, but the new single Dog Days are Over is particularly excellent, video filmed in Dulwich Woods.

(links updated 2018)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Teletubbies House, SE5

In New Church Road, Camberwell, there's a partially demolished council block with a bed suspended from the ceiling, complete with some Teletubby toys. I guess this could be some Camberwell art student effort, but I prefer the idea that the builders spontaneously decided to create this installation. Anybody know any more?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Brockley in the Rain

The weather couldn't have been much worse for Brockley Christmas Fair this afternoon. It rained more or less non-stop. I don't know what impact that add on the stallholders, but there seemed to be a steady flow of people braving the elements.

The musicians were also not deterred. Brockley Ukulele Group played a short festive set, including Last Christmas and Fairytale of New York. The Strum Pets (Corrie and Dominic) made their public debut. But all were upstaged by the Santa Claus and his helpers from John Stainer Primary School - Brockley Ukes: the Next Generation.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Brockley Christmas Fair

Don't forget tomorrow (Saturday), it's the Brockely Christmas Street Market. Coulgate Street (next to Brockley Station) will be pedestrianised for the day, and there will be stalls selling Christmas gifts from 12 noon to 6 pm, plus live music. Brockley Ukulele Group are playing at around 3 pm - Santa will also be singing , and children and parents from John Stainer Primary School. Not sure who else, but there's definitely more! There will be a Santa's grotto and lantern making for kids, minced pies and malled wine and the Xmas lights will be turned on by actor Patrick Baladi - best known as Neil in The Office, who can forget that dance?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Camille Pissarro's Lordship Lane Station

In an article in Saturday’s Guardian, writers reflected on the stories behind their favourite works in the Courtauld Gallery. Julia Neuberger selected Camille Pissarro's Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich (1871) . I have mentioned this painting before - the bridge from which it is painted still stands in Sydenham Hill Woods. Neuberger writes:

'This painting reminds me of my time as rabbi at South London Liberal Synagogue. Though the station no longer exists - it was part of the old Crystal Place high-level railway, serving the crowds who went to see the Crystal Palace exhibition centre in Sydenham - there are many just like it stretching from Herne Hill to Honor Oak and all stations south-east. Pissarro has evoked brilliantly the spread of suburban London. There was huge demand in the 1870s and 80s for respectable housing for clerks who hurried into London every day on the railway. They wanted all mod cons - and they got them, in row after row of identical red-brick houses. The painting shows the houses sketchily, narrow and dark, with little differentiating one from another.

If you walk up and down those same streets of Sydenham and east Dulwich now, only the different names of the identical houses stand out - Mapledene and Ashhurst, Rose Cottage and Oak Lodge - as well as the subtle differences in the stained glass in the front doors. No doubt these "differences" were meant to make their owners and renters feel that they were getting something "unique", rather as all apartments are described as "luxury" these days. But the careful attention to detail in these touches contrasts surprisingly with the fact that many of these houses were poorly built - put up in a hurry in the face of demand and the developers' desire to get rich quick...

...So here is an anti-establishment figure, looking at the spread of London, home of the empire and capitalism, southwards and eastwards. For someone who hated the bourgeoisie, these suburbs epitomised it. He rebelled against the "development" he saw, painting it darkly, with the train rushing though. The impermanence and speed of life is here, as is his life of constant change, always on the move. I look at this painting and see a man shocked by the spread of London's tentacles, saddened at the loss of green spaces, seeing darkness envelope a district formerly filled with light'.

Interesting, but I am not sure I completely agree with this. Pissarro was politically radical, but was he anti-urban? Undoubtedly something was lost with the spread of London into previous areas of countryside, but then as now it's misleading to present the suburbs as this homogenous mass of bourgeois householders just because a lot of the houses look similar. Lots of socially diverse and interesting lives have been lived in those Victorian terraces, and while it is true that some of the building was rushed and slipshod a lot of that housing is still in better conditon than much of what was built later in South London.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

V for Vendetta

I posted a while ago on a panic that gripped Greenwich and Deptford in 1775, with people fleeing in a rainstorm in fear of the area being swallowed up by an earthquake. I was reminded of this when re-reading Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta (1988). The story is set in an alternative present-day London, where war and catastrophe has been followed by a fascist dictatorship. There is a scene where the heroine, Rose, recalls looking out over a flooded London from her home in Shooters Hill.

Deptford also gets a mention as the site of the Deptford Marsh Clearance Project and later of rioting and looting, while 'Brixton and Streatham are quarantine zones'.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Livesey Memorial Hall

Brockley Ukulele Group played a gig last Saturday night at the Livesey Memorial Hill on Perry Hill (Lower Sydenham). We did a 'uke box' set, where people shout out what song they want us to play from a list - as it was a charity gig, we got people to pay for the privilege of hearing songs like The Cure's Friday I'm in Love, Prince's Kiss and Love Goes to Building on Fire (Talking Heads). Dads Aloud played too, and the evening raised £2800 for Kids Company and Smile Train. BUG are doing another Uke Box night at the Amersham Arms in New Cross next Sunday night, 14th December - admission free.

I've never been to The Livesey Memorial Hall before - it's a grand building which like the Livesey Museum on Old Kent Road and Telegraph Hill Park owes its origin to the South London gas magnate George Livesey. The Hall was originally built as a social club for people working in the adjacent Bell Green gas works, which closed in the 1980s.

Even more remarkable than the building itself is the war memorial outside, unveiled in 1920 and listing employees of the South Suburban Gas Company who died in World War One (World War Two dead were added later). It seems to depicts the angel of victory triumphing over a serpent of evil. There's also a Rupert Brooke quote (you can probably guess which one): 'if I should die, think only this of me: that there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England'.
(photograph by fitz3xl at flickr)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Brighton Vigilantes in New Cross, 1945

Life magazine has recently released its excellent archive of photographs on to the internet via Google. There are some astounding images, but searching the collection under 'New Cross' throws up just one hit - this photograph of 'Harry Cowley (C), Harold Steer (L) and Ernest Bradley (3R), leaders of the Brighton Vigilantes, arriving at the New Cross Gate railway station' in August 1945.

The Brighton Vigilantes were a group set up at the end of the Second World War to take direct action for the homeless - expropriating empty buildings to rehouse the families of ex-servicemen. In effect they pioneered the post-war squatting movement. As a result of their initiative, the Government gave local councils the power to requistion unused residences. Harry Cowley, who founded the group, was also involved in fighting fascists in the streets of Brighton.

All of which begs the question - what were they doing in New Cross in 1945? The obvious answer would be that at that time you could get a train direct from Brighton to New Cross, so they may have just been passing through on a visit to London. There were housing seizures in London on similar lines to the Brighton Vigilante movement, but I don't know whether this spread to South East London - anybody know more?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Secret Societies at SELFS

Next week at South East London Folklore Society:

'Why do secret societies have such an appeal? What do they believe, and where do their beliefs come from? Freemasonry, Rosicrucian and Neo-Templar organisations, the various offshoots of the Golden Dawn and the OTO - do any of them have any genuine claim to be the true successors to historical movements? Does it matter if they make up their own histories, as well as their myths and rituals? What are the connections, if any, between John Dee, the Royal Society, Aleister Crowley and Wicca? And does the Priory of Sion, star of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and a certain third-rate thriller, actually exist?

Can David Barrett possibly answer all these questions and more in just an hour? Probably not, but he'll have a damn good try. David V Barrett is the author of, amongst others, The New Believers: A Survey of Sects, "Cults" & Alternative Religions, A Brief History of Secret Societies, and the forthcoming Atlas of Secret Societies. He is a frequent contributor to Fortean Times magazine, and has written for many other newspapers and magazines, mainly on esoteric religion and history'.

Thursday, December 11, 2008, 8 pm at The Old King's Head, Kings Head Yard, 45-49, Borough High St, London SE1.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Band of Holy Joy/Test Department

We've enthused about The Band of Holy Joy here before, arguably the best band to come out of New Cross in the 1980s. Good to see they are busy again - in fact they are doing a cabaret/theatre piece, Troubled Sleep, at Chat's Palace in Hackney this week (5 December). Good too to see BoHJ singer Johny Brown getting a four page profile in The Wire magazine (December 2008), expounding on influences including Brecht, Behan and Burroughs.

Brown now lives in Stoke Newington, but in the interview he recalls that in the 1980s 'we were rooted in New Cross. Test Department and [UK comedian] Vic Reeves, they were our peers'. In the mid-1980s, he was sharing a house in Nettleton Road with another band, Test Department, who he compares with BoHJ; 'Test Department were incredibly masculine ... and we were extremely feminine. We were about romance, about a Britain that was fading away, contrasted with a reality that was quite dark. But there was definitely a spirit shared. Test Department were polemic where we were quite poetic, personal, romantic, the way we saw things. But then again, personal is political. They were out on tour with the miners during the strike, and you can't get more personal than people's lives being affected like that... It was totally opposite to Test Department, who were in training upstairs being militant. We were downstairs on drugs writing these really weird dirges. It was chalk and cheese'.

In terms of the local scene, Brown remembers 'there was lots of cheap housing in New Cross then, lots of squats and housing association houses, and there was Goldsmiths College too. [Test Department's] Angus was top boy at Goldsmiths, so it was mix of squatters, students, genius guys and general misfits. Vic Reeves was a very informed guy, with this art background and he was a really brilliant musician, very much an improvisor, working with people like Steve Beresford way before he made his hit record. The very first music I made when I came to London was with Brett [Turnbull film maker], Vic Reeves and his girlfriend Lucie Russell, and a guy called George on saxophone. We used to do this beautiful free rolling stuff with this cheap and nasty yellow and black plastic Wasp synthesizer. Of course everybody eventually moved away'.

(Thanks to John at Uncarved for letting me know about this article)

Monday, December 01, 2008

Transpontine TV Locations

Once upon a time, whenever you saw a film crew on the streets of Lewisham or Southwark you knew it was probably The Bill or London's Burning looking for a suitably gritty urban location as well as providing work as extras for South London's huge reserve of sporadically employed actors.

Times have changed... but not very much. Today it's likely to be Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes (saw them filming this off Southwark Park Road earlier in the year) or BBC's 'aren't our security services wonderful?' drama Spooks. Last week's episode featured a chase through Surrey Quays Shopping Centre involving rogue MI6 assassins - I kept expecting them to break off the chase and pop into Tchibo to buy a bargain torch/bottle opener/toolkit combo - very handly for secret agents. Mysteriously in the programme the Shopping Centre had an underground carpark - either for dramatic effect or there really is a hidden subterranean world beneth Tescos. There was also a scene in a car breakers in Deptford where I once went in search of a part for a Vauxhall Corsa.

If you're bored of identifying locations, there's always Eastenders star spotting - I've seen two of the cast around Surrey Quays (Lauren and Shirley).