About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Thursday, 29 June 2017

"More bad news from Battersea" - Oh, really? what a massive surprise

Is that some affordable housing going up just to the south of the rebuilt Battersea Power Station? Probably not. The developers have just been given the OK by Wandsworth Council to cut the numbers of affordable homes in the development from 636 to 389. That's a 250 home shortfall on the promised total. Meanwhile some of the poorest people in the borough continue to suffer the disruption, the pollution and the congested roads caused by this absurd development, aimed at an international super-rich market which has already moved on. 

It has been a terrible few weeks for London, but a fascinating time to observe how the London Evening Standard, under the new editor George Osborne, has been covering the successive disasters and tragedies.

No opportunity has been missed to ridicule the prime ministerial qualities of Theresa May. That is entirely as expected. Slightly more surprising is its more cogently critical approach to residential property developers, and this recent headline - "More bad news from Battersea"  - is a case in point.

I've written lots - maybe too much - about the damage this unnecessary and vulgar development is causing, how it is blighting the lives of thousands of local residents from Vauxhall right through to Battersea. I used to prefix these entries with "Nine Elms disease" - but not any more, as that suggests a natural disaster, unavoidable. In fact it's a very human disaster, caused by human greed, and so highly avoidable.

The long-suspected impact on air quality of so much construction work in one area is given added credence by research published last month (see: South Bank construction boom sends London air pollution soaring, London Evening Standard, May 8 2017). There's also the noise, the congestion caused by endless roadworks and closures and the convoys of ready-mix trucks doing the circuits from Silverthorne Road to Vauxhall and back again. The chewed-up streets, the spilling of pebbles so dangerous to the eyes of cyclists, the way these bulky vehicles dominate the road space, just as the new buildings colonise the sky above us.

Now parts of the development are nearing completion, we get an influx of estate agents with their stupid pennants fluttering outside their "marketing suites". Of course they had some bad news too: in March 2016, well before the EU referendum, demand for the sky-high-priced flats (aka safety deposit boxes in the sky) fell back and prices slumped by 20 per cent and more. Demand is said to have recovered a bit since then due to the weaker pound, but it's still far from the 2015 level.

And this week there's further damning news about this place, again reported in the Standard: the developers now want to cut the number of "affordable" flats from 636 to 389, just 9 per cent of the total. This is because their profit expectations have fallen and they need to prop them up - presumably to keep shareholders happy.

They say the other 250 affordable properties could still be built later on - depending on the future state of the market.

Meanwhile they are still using the fact they have rescued a crumbling national icon - Battersea Power Station - as justification for their greed. Well, they might have rebuilt the chimneys very nicely, but unfortunately the whole building is now walled in by such massive banks of apartment blocks that its impact on the surrounding urban environment is totally lost.

The building of high-rise residential towers has gained a painful new topicality since the Grenfell Tower  fire. Last week the people building and buying apartments in the new "luxury" developments were the target of an excoriating attack by novelist Will Self, on BBC Radio 4's A Point of View.

Self, who lives in the Stockwell area, was audibly trembling with rage throughout his 10-minute talk. But he never let the anger get the better of the precision of his speech. Architecture, he said, was unique among the arts in that it had a direct social impact - and thus a moral dimension.

He saved some of his most deliciously withering language for the Nine Elms development: "The very sight of these infantile-looking structures being doodled into being now turns my stomach" he said.

The majority of  these new residential towers, he said, were "as ugly as they are bad, enshrining as they do not the civic virtue of providing housing for people on low incomes, but the corporate vice of profit maximisation".

Well said, Will Self!


Friday, 12 May 2017

Taking a view on redevelopment....Battersea and Nine Elms, 2012 -2017


The first cranes appeared in 2012

There used to be a good view from the back of the small block of flats I live in.  It's in north Clapham, near the Wandsworth Road, and is on the last bit of the higher ground that forms Lavender Hill. So there's nothing but the Battersea marshes and the river between here and central Westminster.

But where once we had views of the old city, now what we see most of are the nasty little boxy blocks and towers scattered along the river, the increasingly baleful evidence of the Battersea - Nine Elms redevelopment. I've watched as the  four chimneys of Battersea Power Station came down, then went back up again. Now the huge building is being engulfed by equally huge blocks going up around it. The old gasholders have gone to be replaced by holders of billionaire owners' tax avoidance schemes.


Battersea Power Station from a fourth floor flat in Clapham: left, on July 6 2012; right, April 2017

Westminster and London Eye from Clapham; left, July 2012, right, April 2017
No point complaining of course...it's not as though we have a protected view. Not that even that status carries much weight in this world of vulture-gangster property developers. Look at the Richmond Park affair.

The funny thing is, I suppose, that all these new buildings are losing value as England commits its xenophobic hari kiri. Perhaps one day soon a penthouse apartment in Nine Elms will be as cheap as it looks.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Two films, two Brixtons, many gentrifications

Went to Ritzy to see A Moving Image, the new film about gentrification in Brixton. Emerged 75 minutes later without much new light on the topic and rather disappointed. Another, very different two-part film, coming at the same topic from a different angle, was far more evocative of at least two of Brixton's dispersed communities. This film, For What We Are About To Lose - was coincidentally the centrepiece of a small exhibition in Brixton Library, next door to the Ritzy.

Talk about keeping it local!

A Moving Image started with a strangely low-key sequence of a young woman emerging from Brixton Tube station into the street with a smart wheelie suitcase. The underground arrival in Brixton is surely one of the great full-on London experiences, but it seemed underwhelming here. Maybe deliberately, as this young woman was supposed to be returning to Brixton after a few years out east in the artistic community of Shoreditch. Maybe Brixton seemed rather unthrilling to her, what with her memories of an even livelier high street of the early 2000s.

 If so it underlined not only the problem of gentrification, but also  the whole concept of the movie, which was constantly struggling against itself.

On her return to her home patch, this young mixed-race woman, Nina,  played by Tanya Fear, stays in an enormous and ridiculously fashionable loft apartment owned by a friend of a friend. She explores the area, wandering the streets with her top-end digital SLR, filming what she sees.

She has debates with her equally smart girlfriend who agrees to help with her "project". At first she doesn't know what she wants the project to be but when she gets mixed up in a Reclaim Brixton demo she decides that's her subject - gentrification. Not a documentary, mind you, but an art piece, a piece of art.

One great moment in the film only works if you see the film in this cinema: during the demo we see the Ritzy strikers calling for boycott of the Picturehouse group cinemas until they're all paid the living wage. It was one of the few moments in the film that triggered some cheering in the audience.

It takes a while to dawn on Nina that she is part of the gentrification, even though her friends keep telling her, and interviewees make it clear. It's as clear as day to the audience, because the dear girl is wearing a totally different designer outfit in every take, and speaks the lingo of the casually moneyed hipsterish young.

She befriends a young black guy who is meant to be part of the community but he's also an "artist" and the art and music he makes is a truly terrible. The villain of the piece is a young and very successful white actor who falls for the girl and has bought a flat in formerly-squatted Rushcroft Road - you know the buildings - as a "good investment". He's a villain, sure, but he's also, as we learn later on,  a working class lad from Bermondsey made good, whose own family have been driven away from their old neighbourhood. One of the admirable things about this film is that it shows just how complicated this gentrifcation busines is.

In the course of making her art, Nina interviews a few people, and these are the highlights of the film; the bloke from Peckham is especially entertaining. The black members of a local community group are suspicious of her motives and one of their members cruelly tells her that her project "doesn't mean shit".

By the end of the film you can't help but agree with him. It was really much more about Nina's internal struggles with depression (rather clumsily revealed by the discovery of a strip of anti-depressants) and her romantic life.  Maybe it was me, but  the scene where she makes the white boy actor dance with her was very odd: were we supposed to be entertained or what?

The other main character in the film is Big Ben, a mysterious, homeless black busker and ranter who acts as a sort of conscience of the movie. She films him a lot, and perhaps he should be the real subject of her movie. But as soon as she realises this he dies. There's a nice scene where she dreams he's in her flat and sitting on her bed, and then he disappears in a ball of blinding light.

 So, perhaps that's it: the revelation that the true soul of Brixton has already departed.

The interviews with anti-gentrification people from New York and Berlin popped into the film were intriguing; it's only when you go to the community bit of this film's website you realise these videos are part of a bigger project to collect voices from threatened communities around the world.

In other words, the director of A Moving Image, Shola Amoo, is trying to do exactly what Nina is doing: he is Nina, and suddenly it all sort of makes sense.

All in all, a film's a curate's egg; it's intriguing and ambitious, but also annoying, and it seems that some opportunities are wasted. But, if you've never visited Brixton you at least get some moody rooftop views; but not enough, even of this, for my liking.

Still, you have to commend the director for attempting such a complex project, and the film has had plenty of good reviews in the media, so please don't take my criticisms too seriously ( I know that won't happen!)

The other film, For What We Are About To Lose, is a very well-crafted example of the traditional documentary style, with many interviews intercut with archive photos and some lovely footage of Brixton in the 50, 60s, 70s and 80s.

It was made by the Clapham Film Unit, and is in two parts. The first 20 minutes covers the history of the Carlton Mansions squat from the 70s to the final evictions of 2014; the second half looks at Somerleyton Road community. Together the short films are a precious record of what was once the true heart of Brixton, that little bit where Coldharbour Lane crosses Railton and Atlantic Roads, which is now undergoing transformation as part of the Somerleyton Road redevelopment scheme.

You might say that the Carlton Mansions film is only representative of a small fraction of the old Brixton community, the squatters, and that would be true. "Maybe we were all misfits," says one of the  first occupants.  Former squatters are interviewed inside the astonishing and huge buildings where they made their homes and workshops and studios. There were poignant moments, and also painful memories.

One of the original squatters, Dale, reveals how they were actually invited into the building by Lambeth Council, which at the time ran progressive short-life housing schemes, helping people set up housing co-ops and handing out grants to make the places habitable. Dale also worked with Brian Barnes on the famous Nuclear Dawn mural on the huge side wall of the mansions - a mural which is still there but rapidly disappearing under new graffiti.

 Another guy talked about how they had to secure and guard their squat because Brixton was such a "difficult place" in the 80s. It was not only sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There were hard times, hard winters, fights, a suicide, rows. But also a lot of creativity, and we hear from several successful artists and makers who got their first big break in the Mansions.

The Somerleyton Road part of the doc is only 10 minutes or so but an utterly joyous film. Some former residents are brought together in a community centre on Railton Road, and they talk about their lives back in Somerleyton Road back in the 60s and 70s - even before the Barrier Block went up.

There are some wonderful memories of blues parties, some fantastic old footage of Brixton market, and even an impromptu performance of by former members of a lover's rock group, who reminisce about the excitement of seeing Jamaican DJ Peter Metro at a Somerleyton blues before letting on they were part of a group of  five women who took over the stage from him...."we were not deejays but sing-jays, we took a broadway melody and we ride the rhythm...."

One woman at the end sums up the process which is sometimes referred to as social cleansing: "It seems like a plot. They sell your house, move you into a block of flats. Why are we knocking wonderful buildings down to build atrocious things like that?  To me it was like a con. That was the beginning of the change."

You must watch these films! Catch them on the Clapham Film unit website now; there's also a very good, well illustrated free booklet about the films; copies were available in Brixton library, last time I was there.










Friday, 28 April 2017

The new Nine Elms: even uglier than expected

Let's hope that when the new Wandsworth Road tube station is built in the the foreground of this pic it will block out the view of that ugly bunch of apartment buildings behind. 

Some of that cluster of hefty buildings around the old Sainsbury's site at the eastern end of the Battersea-Nine Elms-Vauxhall development are nearing completion - and God help us, what a terrible blot on the landscape they are.

Take one look at these pictures, that's all you will be able to stand. The shapes and colours are just so dull, the positioning of each building in relation to its neighbours seems wrong. Imagine the poor buggers who are spending their life savings on an apartment on the 9th floor of one of these dingy erections (OK - no normal people have such life savings, only City rooks and crooks and speculators and you won't feel sorry for them).

You couldn't even call them towers; they are neither high-rise nor low rise. They are hunched, bad tempered, and they lean awkwardly towards each other, like a badly-posed group photo of people who loathe each other.

It has to be said they are wilfully ugly. In an age when computers allow architects to design buildings of almost any shape, and materials can be supplied in almost every colour, how on earth did they think these shapes and colours would do for this location? The facings are dark grey, tan, off-white and a sickly yellow. The tan is particularly horrible - the colour of the last shoes on the rack in a Clark's sale when everything else has gone.

One  thing is clear - there's not going to be any shortage of contenders for the 2017 Carbuncle of the Year awards, many with an SW8 post code.

Which is a shame, because I have been longing to be proved wrong on this development. It surely will all be wonderful when finished.

A singularly depressing bunch of buildings hits your eyeballs
as you head west down the Wandsworth Road and see this
new Barratt Homes development nextto the new Sainsburys.
The new Sainsburys has been open for a while. I went there, as I used to quite like the "old" 1980s Sainsburys at Nine Elms that attracted customers from an astonishingly wide hinterland, south east down to Camberwell, locals in Vauxhall and Stockwell, and most of Clapham, Battersea and beyond before "local" supermarkets popped up every few yards.

The new one - oh, I am sorry to have to say this - is underwhelming. For a start , it is all up two steep flights of stairs. When you enter that shiny gold and orange building, you walk into a bland car-park foyer with those annoyingly slow travelators going up and down. Who, in 2017, builds a supermarket designed chiefly with motorists in mind in such a central location?

The shop itself occupies the normal large space, which could just as well be used for offices, storage, a call centre...a mass dormitory....a rave venue; and who knows, if it last long enough it might see  all these uses.

It shares the floor with a couple of not convincing concessions. One is called Habitat but  it's hard to see much connection with the original yuppies' favourite furniture store in their offerings; not much sign of the Conran dedication to good, useful design is visible.

What a shame. No-one expects to love a supermarket, but there was a time when people admitted to some affection for the old Sainsburys, where you would keep bumping into people you knew. These days the store seems to be just an adjunct to the property developers; indeed, with all its inner city Local stores, it seems Sainsburys is a bit of a player int this field itself.



Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The day Theresa May stole Clapham's big radio moment

Clapham High Street - here and now, but not on the BBC Radio London Robert Elms show last week thanks to Mrs May's election announcement...but where, oh where, was the wonderful Maxwell Hutchinson?
Was listening to Radio London Tuesday morning.

As, to be honest, I often do....working at home, you know, self-employed teacher....freelance writer and editor...you know, well I will get back to jobseeking when I've had one more coffee. And listened to the wonderful and Reverend Professor Maxwell Hutchinson on the Robert Elms radio show on BBC Radio London - a local radio station that is often more interesting and intelligent than many of the national channels.

That man - the very Rev Prof Max - is quite a wonder. He's a great entertainer and educator on his many and various special subjects - architecture and the built environment, music, the Church and all manner of ecclesiastical matters....and much more. I think he is a world authority on Frankincense. And myrhh.

He's been doing this for ages, alongside running a successful architectural practice and being president of the RIBA, as well as a lay deacon. A couple of years back he had a bad, serious stroke. He was off air for months. But Mr Elms and his very loyal, very solid band of listeners, kept the idea of Max alive. By his own account, Mr Elms and his many listeners helped to keep Max alive. And Max came back and again turns up on the show every week, often on location as a sort of Kolly Kibber character - find Max in your Manor!

This week, the Rev Professor was supposed to be in my manor. I did not know this til 10am Tuesday when I tuned in my dodgy transistor to 94.9fm.

Poor old Robert Elms was having to deal with people from Clapham; he could hardly conceal his distaste for the place. He cheered up when someone pointed out Clapham Junction was in Battersea and it was only through snobbery they changed the name to Clapham.
A crescent moon over the bell-tower of Clapham's Holy Trinity
church: maybe Maxwell Hutchinson was somewhere around
this historic building, marooned like a ship on Clapham
Common.

You could sort of tell from the way he enunciated "Clapham" (and even slipped in a naughty "Cla'am" which was bound to annoy some SW4 listeners) that he did not have his usual enthusiasm for this Manor: too posh by 'alf, too silly, was what he  perhaps was half-secretly thinking. ALso it has the disadvatage of being south of the river, and just south of Chelsea.

I sort of agree with Mr Elms ...but I also agree with the caller who said Clapham had always been up-and-coming. But it never actually arrived. Which is (in my view) its saving grace. The High Street is still pleasingly scruffy. It's quite a horrible place but it is also mixed enough to remind you that the Henrys and Banker-wankers and so on are only the most recent and actually quite thin layer of this suburb's social geology.

There is still enough social housing in Clapham to ensure that the Henry&Henrietta brigade never completely colonise. Nor any other group of transients, my own lot of of 80s chancers included.

Then Mr Elms was talking to some chap who represented Clapham Common, a preservation society. He was in fact in Spain as he spoke. He did a so-so job, hardly exciting much interest in the long and outrageous history of this odd open space. Instead he kept telling us there were lots of fun runs. 'Fun run' is surely oxymoronic. He mentioned also 'Australian rules' football and dog-walkers. Yes, alas he was right - that is now what the Common is about. Sport, fitness, dogs and their owners. And in summer, young people eating huge picnics and drinking lots of champagne or prosecco from Sainsburys then leaving all the rubbish on the grass afterwards.

What about the 1985 (?) AntiApartheid free concert? Dr John? Alternative Miss World? Sunsplash? Archaos? Desmond Dekker at the Bandstand? Remember that, do you? etc?

Look, you know I am  a big critic of what has happened around here, and I wouldn't trust myself to defend it now, to be honest, even though it has served me well over three decades - but when we're on a global radio show, we need to stick together, right?

Well, I was waiting with some trepidation to find out what would be said.

Or maybe he was here, Old Clapham Library on the North Side of the
Common. This building was eventually saved and became what is now
the Omnibus, a well-used arts centre which is currently showing
Jim Grover's excellent photos of Clapham High Street life,
low, high and higher.
I was waiting for the chance to ring and tell Mr Elms about the Bread and Roses pub, almost the last place in Clapham I still feel very positive about. A trade union pub with music, free music, theatre and more! The Studio Voltaire contemporary art organisation also seems like a very good thing, deserving of much more praise than it gets. I'd have tried to mention that as well.

But I was also waiting for Jim Grover, the photographer of 48 hours on Clapham High Street, who was due to appear on the show to talk about his book and photo-exhibition at the Omnibus Arts centre.

And above all - I was waiting to find out where in Clapham the Rev Prof had chosen - and even more trepidation as to who he might meet. I began to fantasise. Maybe he will be outside the Holy Trinity Church on the Common - home of the Clapham Sect, one of the key places where the abolition of the slave trade gained momentum.

I think that would be the obvious place for Maxwell Hutchinson to set up shop - a church (albeit not that interesting, architecturally) - with some powerful history, and right by the popular paddling pool and temperance statue to boot.

Or maybe he was at the the new Library. Flashy noughties public-private rip-off architecture. No café any more!
This would have been a good place for the Prof Maxwell Hutchinson to hang out
with his Radio London crew: outside the new Clapham Library, half way down
 the High Street. Andrew Logan's mirrored artworks spelling out "Library"
are popular with all age groups and are arguably more interesting than
the building they stand in front of. 

Or perhaps in one of the leafy upper-crust streets or squares...or in Venn Street, a pleasant enough place. Or maybe he was at the Old Library, now the Omnibus Arts Centre - that would have made sense, especially as those High Street photos are on exhibition there right now.

So yes, I was waiting....and then Theresa May said she wanted a general election, and that was that! The rest of the show was devoted to political analysis and speculation, inevitably and properly, of course.

Ah well, maybe it was for the best.

Clapham is such an odd place now. I don't think it fits Robert Elm's idea of the sort of place real "one of us" Londoners live. Maybe it was once. It does not seem that sort of a place any more, even though, in reality, it of course is.

Clapham. Marginal but not edgy. Common, yes, very common. But not cheap, and certainly not very cheerful. Unless you have a city bonus to spend.

Why I write this stupid blog/ Why do I write this stupid blog?

Macaulay Road, Clapham, in autumn. Sometimes it is good just to celebrate the beauty of the place you live in.
It's always a joy to have some time - and the necessary drive - to write something for this blog.

What's wonderful about writing a blog named Microgroove 33 is that i can write about anything I bloody well like.

It doesn't have to be local, it doesn't have to be news, it doesn't have to be about music or art or people or linguistics or bicycles or Penguin Classics or charity shops or architecture  or even about London - although those are all things I'd love to be expert enough to write a blog on.

It doesn't even have to be about dogs.

Like I said, I have been looking back at the blog, and especially at dozens -  five dozen in fact -  of unpublished entries that are scattered around in the blogger editing and design area, like so many unfinished projects in a bike workshop.

I trip over them, frequently - especially two or three unpublished updates to the totally subjective south-west London charity shop survey for bibliophiles first published in 2013.

Ever since I have been promising myself to update and extend this series, and have even written new stuff, about the charity shops of Streatham, and Stroud Green, and Kilburn, for example (there are lots, and lots).

Recent visits to the Barnado's shop in Brixton confirm and re-confirm my feeling that this would be the number one shop if I were to update that silly top 10. It's solid on my staples - books and music and good old clothes - and it keeps throwing up interesting oddities. This week there's a whole glass case full of vintage cameras, and a whole shelf of cut-price bath products.

Not long ago it had a rack-full of over-size string vests - you know, the type some Rastas wore back in the 80s? But these were not just in the Rasta red green and gold, but in the colours of lots of other African flags. Reader I bought one - but no-one outside this blog will ever find out, and no-one will ever see me wearing it either!

So, there you go ....maybe one day I will complete some more of these beached, stranded stories.

Like the one on the strange increase in people getting caught short and crapping on the streets. Twice within 150 yards of where I am now sitting, in the past two months. I'm talking humans, not dogs. Young humans. I could continue but I will not.

Or the story on the mystic Xanadu of Dawson Heights.

Some of the articles are no more than a headline that  for some reason I liked at the time. In a long career as a mediocre journalist, I remember how every so often a sub would come up with a perfect headline for a story that did not exist, and we'd try to find that story and write it.

I also want to write about the beauty of the wisteria in three streets, and the beauty of Californian Lilac in another three; or maybe one just about the beauty of the residential streets of SW8 in spring.

I could write a hundred more posts on my curious work pattern, which takes me to Vauxhall, Bermondsey,  Camberwell, Dulwich, Forest Hill, New Cross and New Malden on a regular basis, sometimes in the evenings. And once to Stoke-on-Trent.

And to converted shops in Angell Town ...

I want to write about the writers I love, and about places I love; about bikes and bike shops.

But I'm sure I will soon be back to ranting about Range Rovers, posh types and luxury apartments.
It's so much easier to write when you're really stirred up with anger!



Monday, 10 April 2017

The first warm weekend of the year and look what happens

Why is the grass of Clapham Common so green, so lush? Maybe we don't want to know...
It's the first really warm weekend of the year, and as always, most of the population of this locality go a bit crazy.

By 4pm today, the temperature in this part of south London topped 24 degrees, and as if by some cosmic ordination, everyone of a certain age and social inclination left their homes - their stuffy shared flats or luxury apartments - and went and sat down on the green grass of  Clapham Common.

So many people went out, it looked like Brighton beach on an unexpectedly hot Bank Holiday.

Cycling past on way home , seeing all these happy souls basking in the long-forgotten warmth of London sunshine, it is so easy to be seduced - why not join them for a while, the grass looks so green.

Oh, ill-advised one. You weave your way through the little groups of people, you find your patch, you stretch out on the grass, you relax. And then it hits you - a faint but distinctly unpleasant smell, but more than a smell, it is a tang, something almost hormonal. It is also as though your skin is being touched by something bad.

You look around. Can't all these people smell this smell? Is it just me? Am I in fact the source of this pong?

Then it dawns on me: there has not been any rain for weeks. Not real, heavy rain. The last few days have been warm. But every day, hot or cold, every single day, thousands and thousands of dogs from all the houses in all the vast tracts of residential streets surrounding Clapham Common - yes, all those dogs are taken out, every morning, every afternoon, every evening, to relieve themselves on the
grass of the Common.

The solid waste from these dogs is usually removed from the Common in small plastic bags. Most of it. But the liquids - these are sprayed onto the grass and the earth, and they stay there. Including the wee of randy male dogs and on-heat bitches.

That's the smell we are all enjoying today!

The rich, doggy aroma of south west London's biggest free dog toilet.


Friday, 31 March 2017

It's not just Nine Elms - even Mecca is suffering at the hands of property developers

View from the Abraj al Bait tower while it was under construction, looking down into the sanctuary of
Mecca's Holy Mosque. Note the areas cleared for more construction in the background.
Photo: Basil D Soufi via Wikimedia Commons
Unless you are a Muslim, your chances of visiting the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia are approximately zero. But a short film, shown at last week's BBC Arabic Film festival, reveals that even this most sacred of places is being ravaged by property developers - remarkably similar to the ones working their grim way along the south bank of the Thames.

What this film, Prayer for Mecca,  brings home so sharply is how rampant redevelopment - which has the full support of the government and presumably the religious authorities - has already wiped out parts of the medieval city, and in doing so has also destroyed a slice of communal memory. A recent Guardian article reports local anger at the way their neighbourhoods are being erased to make way for new roads and hotels.

Directed by Matteo Lonardi, the film follows the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater as he attempts to document the rapid change being inflicted on his city. This young man - clearly at some risk to himself - is photographing what he can of the old city, as well as the redevelopment.

Much of the film, like the city itself, is dominated by the gargantuan Abraj Al Bait hotel complex, a grouping of massive skyscrapers which loom over the most sacred part of the city, the Masjid al-Haram (Holy Mosque) and its courtyard where millions of pilgrims gather each year, to circle the Kaaba, the most holy cube-shaped shrine at its centre.

A famous ancient Ottoman fortress was demolished to make way for these new buildings, which contain shopping malls and office premises as well as ultra-luxurious hotel accomodation, car parks and even helipads.

The central tower, with its huge clockfaces and spire, looks a bit like a kitscher version of the already kitsch Big Ben, but for its height - at 601m about seven times as tall - and the crescent moon at the tip. The forest of cranes surrounding the central area is painfully reminiscent of the Battersea to Vauxhall riverside development.

Of course it's the massive increase in numbers of pilgrims which provides the main justification for this redevelopment, along with some tragic incidents when the old city's infrastructure could not cope with the crowds.

But it's the brashness and show-off style of these buildings that is upsetting for some locals, according to Ahmed, who notes that they seem entirely at odds with the spiritual nature of the place. Apparently there's even a Starbucks in there somewhere. The minarets of the great mosque are dwarfed, and the new sykscrapers throw deep shadows across the courtyard.

The area where he grew up - an old quarter, with a maze of narrow alleyways - has been bulldozed.

Makes you wonder what Canterbury might look like if they had 14 million pilgrim-visitors going there for the same week every year....


Thursday, 30 March 2017

Photographer gets under the skin of Clapham High Street's Jekyll and Hyde character

This uninspiring photo of Clapham High Street is by me: to see this much-maligned thoroughfare in a totally different and much more interesting light, check out Jim Grover's photos on the BBC Online site or better still get along to his exhib-
ition at the Omnibus Arts Centre in Clapham, April 3 - 20
Thanks to photographer Jim Grover, the south London Babylon otherwise known as Clapham High Street is being shown to the world in all its glorious ghastliness - and even a bit of unexpected beauty -  on the BBC website.

 Jim Grover's amazing photo essay has been chosen as this week's  BBC Online"Picture This" feature  - a few days before the photos go on show locally at  Omnibus (the arts centre in the old Clapham Library building on Clapham Common northside).

Jim hit on the brilliant notion of treating his subject, rather like Hieronymous Bosch, in two parts - heaven and hell, and photographing them differently, one in colour, the other black and white.   The division is between night and day - cleverly working on the split personality of this singularly unattractive thoroughfare.

And he works some real alchemy with his camera: sometimes it looks almost beautiful, sometimes as sordid and threatening as a Mean Streets era New York. The real stars of the show, however, are the people, and thankfully there's hardly an upturned-collar rugger shirt in sight.

His daytime shots beautifully capture a suburban world of shoppers, street cleaners, mums, kids, shop keepers, rough sleepers, pensioners, commuters, itinerants; the same old Clapham set. These photos are all in colour, and are all taken on the south side of the street.

The nightlife shots are all black and white and are all taken on the north side of the street, focusing on the true inferno of Infernos, the notoriously tacky night-club, and that strip of bars leading down towards Clapham North. You don't get too much sense of the literal tackiness of this street on a busy summer night, when your shoes can stick to a pavement awash with puked-out Baileys, half-digested kebabs and a mixture of human and canine urine.

Generally he's very kind to Clapham - he doesn't mock or caricature it, and the yuppie-buppie-yummie-mummy-rugger-bugger set don't get too much of a look-in. They tend not to use the thoroughfare that much anyway, in my experience, sticking mostly to the "Old Town" area of max wealth, the plus Venn Street and the pubs around Clapham Common tube station when there are big matches on.

Jim Grover makes gold out of the base metal of this conflicted bit of Lambeth. There are many beautiful photos, even on the BBC site: I am eager to see more at the exhibition.  Favourites so far include some of the long-term shopkeepers and some very atmospheric shots of made-up revellers, and of my favourite bit of the street including the old Greek restaurant (Sappho) and that strange mystical charity shop.

I'm looking forward to seeing these pics at the Omnibus - especially as I have been trying to do something similar in words for years, and failing.

For as long as I can remember the authorities have been trying to clean up and gentrify the high street, to make it more yuppie-friendly. I remember when the Sainsbury's opened on the site of the old bus depot (and later, British Transport museum) - when, for a while, people thought this might be the beginning of an invasion by upmarket retail "brands".

Thank God, it never happened!

Instead it remains as scuzzy as ever, even after the building of that posh new library and health complex with its classy (but vandal-friendly) Andrew Logan artwork spelling out "LIBRARY".

As Jim's photo essay confirms, Clapham High Street remains a real Jekyll and Hyde of a street, a bit down at heel during the day, and an all-out alcohol fuelled war-zone every Friday and Saturday night.

It's rather quaint and old-fashioned in its way. It has nothing to do with the world of cool, arty nightlife so highly prized in places like Shoreditch and Dalston and Deptford and Peckham. It is totally uncool, unfashionable, and un-smart. And yet it remains incredibly popular, mainly it seems, for the kids from the further-out south west London suburbs. In short, it's a rite of passage place for kids with fake IDs.

They come to get hideously drunk in the bars here, they hope to pull, but most seem just to wander up and down in groups, vomiting occasionally, and shouting loudly to each other (I heard one say last week, "Guys, I really have to take a shit right here right now") - before tapping their phones to rustle up some sort of Uber car to take them back to dad's post-divorce black-leather-lined bachelor pad in Putney or Purley.

But, like so many other of London's suburban high streets, the real boss here is the traffic. Like the A23 through Brixton and Streatham, this is a trunk route, combining both the A24 as well as the A3. It is just too big a road to tame.

The pedestrian crossing lights are some of the most ruthless anywhere in London - you get half way across and they start blinking at you. Impatient drivers in their white vans, Audis and Aston Martins - they are  all in such a hurry. You run the last yards and off they go, heading perhaps for lovely gated homes in Nappy Valley, or further out, in Surrey and Hampshire. Heading north, they're looking for posher places to spend their bankers' wad of an evening.

They don't care that they are on Clapham High Street.

But there I go, fantasising again. See the reality of 48 Hours On Clapham High Street in Jim Grover's great exhibition at the Clapham Omnibus, April 3 - 20.




Sunday, 26 March 2017

Clapham Library café update

Good news: people are once again allowed to sit in the ground floor café area!

Other news, neither good nor bad: the café itself is still not back in business, so you can't buy drinks and snacks, even though the kitchen and all its equipment seems to be intact.

Bad news: you still can't use the toilet.


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Clapham Library's cafe remains closed – pity they didn't take some tips from Southwark

It's odd but true that two neighbouring south London boroughs, Lambeth and Southwark, have such different approaches to public libraries, despite having so much else in common.

These and several other thoughts emerged as I sat hunched on the terrible little narrow bench that passes for seating in the public library in Clapham High Street.

Clapham Library, half five on a Friday, the café is shut, and no-one can
use the seating. 
Thought one was: I should sue Lambeth council for doing my back in, as sitting on this bench for 20 minutes trying to find some info had revived long-buried lower back pain.

The bench was one of the only vacant seats in the library late on a Friday afternoon.

There were lots of empty chairs and tables in the café. But the café is closed. It seems no-one can enter what used to be the biggest seating area at ground level in this strange building, and it also seems that this café - which opened less than a year ago - has already shut down, at least temporarily.

No-one could explain why it was closed again last Saturday morning - surely a potential peak time. Have the operators decided to cut their losses? All the equipment is still there.  And why on earth can't we use the seats, whether or not it's selling its pricey hot drinks and snacks?

Absurd or what?

Given that most library users are schoolkids, students, OAPs, or young parents with toddlers attending storytime groups etc, it would seem that the cafe was aiming at the wrong market. The 30-something folk who love to spend their high earnings on small cups of coffee with silly names would not really need to come here - this area is full of twee little coffee shops, not to mention the obligatory Starbucks etc.

If the cafe had sold cheap and cheerful coffees, teas, and some simple grub, it might have worked. No item more than £1.

Mind you the café was well used, particularly in the exam season when there was really nowhere else to sit and study - but probably most of those customers bought one drink and then stayed the whole morning, revising or whatever.

You couldn't really blame the cafe operators - they probably thought Clapham, that's a wealthy area, let's go for the yuppie market. But the yups ain't there, they're all over the road at Cafe Nero. It was surely the fault of the council for agreeing to let this bit of public space for a private business.

They even threw in the toilet as part of the deal - outrageous or what?

Well, I'll check out this café again later in the week. Maybe if they have gone the council will be seeking another taker for this space...who knows. Maybe they should offer it to a food bank?

But then, this new library building was always a bit compromised. We only got it because they let the developers build that clunky edifice of expensive flats above and around it.

This library is rightly popular for its wide range of events and classes, especially for very young kids. The staff are great and someone clearly goes to a lot of trouble to try to maintain an interesting stock of books.

But from the start, it's been clear it's not really a very good space for what should be a core library activity - reading!

Yes there are some "teen" study areas, and a very cramped little general reading area up the top, plus a few small PC rooms. These are nearly always fully occupied. Right at the bottom there are cell-like meeting rooms, which are hidden away; you feel you are not really supposed to be there. The large floor area at the very bottom of the building has several tables and chairs for studying and a couple of sofas - but this is generally considered to be the children's area, and again you feel like you're breaking rules if you go down there to read.

In fact as I sat on my tortuous bench, two women with young kids came down the ramp, one saying in a very loud voice, "Oh I do hate it when grown-ups sit in the kid's area, it's creepy..."

Well I wasn't in the kid's area but halfway down the ramp. Every so often very young children zoom down the ramp on their scooters. Any moment you expected to hear a thump followed by much wailing. Luckily, no such disaster today.

All this made me think again what a wasted opportunity this library was, especially when you compare it with some of the much older libraries Lambeth has been closing or compromising under its heavily criticised scheme.

Lambeth only has to look east towards its much more competent neighbouring borough, Southwark, to see how to run libraries.

I've been working in Borough High Street for a couple of days a week, and have got to know the Harvard Library, close to St Georges Church and the tube station.

Despite its historic origins, explained on a blue plaque, this famously-named library also now occupies a fairly modern building, quite a bland one compared to the over-designed Clapham project.

There's nothing very pretty or exciting about it - it is simply a good, sensible building, which could just as well be offices or shops. But it provides plenty of space for all the activities a modern library has to offer.

So, there are lots of computer workstations for schoolkids and students as well as local workers seeking somewhere to wile away their lunch-breaks when it's cold and wet outdoors.

There's a kids' area of course. And yes, there is a café. It's right at the front of the library, but unlike the Clapham one it does not usurp any reading space. Anyone can sit in that large area, where they have sensibly located the magazine and newspaper racks. Anyone can stay there all day reading and not buy a single coffee.

But every time I've been in there, the café has been busy. It's a lunch destination for local workers, an after work place to relax for a while before meeting up with friends. And a wonderful sanctuary for all the drifters, the lonely, the homeless, the old, freezing construction workers, the young, tired tourists, whoever happens to pass.

That's what a public library should be! And by the way, they had two different complete translations of Proust on the shelves,  and their CD loan collections were amazing - 40p for a week's loan.

Talk about grass being greener over the administrative boundary fence.


Friday, 10 March 2017

Oi, you! Property developers and your ilk - can we have our words back, please?

I can think of a fourth two-word phrase ending in "OFF" which might be the best response to these corporate language thieves, seen not long ago outside the former IPC building in Stamford Street, not far from Blackfriars Bridge
First they take your words, then they take your city.

This seems to be part of the strategy of the corporate property developers who are gobbling up huge areas of what used to be a fairly open city. They grab the land, then they put up big fences. Then they write big friendly lovely words all over these fences to make you think they are wonderful people!

But even as they decorate the barriers - sometimes employing very skilled artists and copywriters to do it - behind the hoardings, they are busily privatising and colonising not only the land but also the sky above it.

Yes, that's right: we must indeed be innovative, and highly collaborative.
Thanks for the advice, Battersea Power Station Development people!

Watch out for these smug and vacuous phrases that are being painted in tasteful colours and elegant fonts on hoardings all around us, as if the words actually bring the ideas into existence!

I mean, seriously, what the hell has Rachmaninoff and Blue Note got to do with a massive block of luxury apartments that has taken over what used to be IPC Magazines HQ in Stamford Street, near Blackfriars Bridge?

Yeah, what? As though by putting the words close to each other the goodness of the first two will somehow rub off onto the badness I at least associate with the others, such as "target market" and "luxury apartments".

Look at those words above written on the miles of fence on Nine Elms Lane; "innovative", "collaborative" ....oh, yes, of course.

OK, so the blame for this sort of nonsense cannot all be laid at the feet of estate agents. It started, as so much else rotten did, in the advertising industry and was then picked up by marketing and "brand" executives, especially in the 80s.

Remember the time when perfectly sensible company names were changed to vague, often made-up words, such as "Aviva" or  the Post Office's temporary pseudonym, "Consignia"? Or when the Philip Morris tobacco firm became "Altria?" (For other horrors of this nature, read this great article in Time Magazine).

In the late 90s, under the shining eyes of Mr Blair, this trend moved into the public sector, and suddenly schools around the land were changing their names and adopting gormless or worthy slogans instead of homely Latin mottos: "Excellence for all" was a favourite; "Embracing diversity" - yes, a great thing, but are you really doing it? "Integrity, Diligence, Civility" - yes, all of those please!

No doubt it's good to have lofty ambitions: you just wonder sometimes if those schools with their flashy new buildings and lurid new uniforms can live up to the hype of their marketing.

Politicians have always loved dreadful slogans, but even the least offensive of these optimistic phrases can turn your stomach when they are over-used. A case in point at a recent London Mayoral event. while the crowd waited patiently for the arrival of delayed Mayor Khan, they played a short marketing video about London at least 20 times. The theme, "London is open" in a whole range of carefully chosen accents, thus embracing diversity as well. The trouble is by the 12th or 13th hearing of someone like the ubiquitous Jarvis Cocker mumbling "London is open" you begin to question those words. Is it really open? To whom? People with enough money? Clever buggers only?
No, actually you are NOT improving the image of construction,
not even slightly. And yes I do mind if you don't smoke.

Which brings us back to property developers and that annoying phrase you see on building sites everywhere: "Improving the image of construction".

Oh yeah? Whenever I see that I think, "Oh no you're not". If you think the way you're building that horrible pile of expensive flats that no-one living around here can hope to afford is in some way an improvement on the people who built St Paul's Cathedral, then you should think again.

Maybe we should have some new by-laws about words on hoardings. Maybe like fag packets they should be forced to print some home truths, some "health warnings" in equally trendy fonts.

Something like this, perhaps:

"Buying a flat in this development will not only bankrupt you it will also make you the laughing stock of all your even richer friends and the enemy of everyone living in the estate over the road".






Sunday, 12 February 2017

Sneak preview of Battersea-Nine Elms "village" life as river frontage opens to public

Good news (or so it seemed) last week, to hear that the river frontage by Battersea Power Station was open to the public for the first time since that brief glimpse we had back in 2013 (when there was a sort of alternative Chelsea Flower Show staged on the land about to be transformed into luxury flats).

So on Sunday, after a happy hour or two in Battersea Park, including a visit to the Pump House Gallery (re-opened after being flooded in January) I thought I'd check it out.

It's good that you can get from the park to the new bit without having to cross Queenstown Road, via a walkway under the first span of Chelsea Bridge.

So you walk under the road, and emerge in front of those lumpy flats which went up in the 1990s and now seem rather jaded, set as they are against a backdrop of the splendours oF Battersea - Nine Elms extravagance.  So now, you can walk on, until you get to the wide Grosvenor railway bridge carrying all the Southern rail lines into Victoria Station over the river.

This bit of the walkway has been transformed using lots of Scandinavian-look timber. It's all very nicely-built. There's a new Santander bike rack and large timber-framed exhibition room, plus several shop/bar/restaurant and kiosk spaces. And lots of festive lightbulbs. Just round the corner it leads to what they are calling a "village hall" for the first of the new residential areas ("Quarters" I mean)  at this end of the massive Battersea-Nine Elms development.

With people supposed to be moving into the first flats very soon, this bit - Circus West Village - is a sort of sneak preview of what this vast development might feel like. I never did find the idea of London's urban villages very convincing or  attractive, and to describe this encampment for multi-millionaires a village is stretching the concept a bit, isn't it?
The folksy map shows some of the first occupants of the retail and restaurant
spaces: looks like you won't have to far for a cocktail or an artisanal toasted
sandwich with a cold-pressed flat white, if that's your thing...

On this day, it felt a bit odd, a bit sad, a bit of everything really. Smartly dressed security guys clutched walkie-talkie phones and did their best to smile at the occasional pedestrian or cyclist visitors, the inquisitive passers-by and lost joggers.

Not sure how many serious potential buyers there were there.

The new residential buildings are very showy, very smart and cold.
There's one clad entirely in copper sheeting, another a great glass snake that follows the railway line, said by the developer to be as long as the Shard is tall.

One of the rooms under the bridge is hosting a display about the development. It includes one of those wonderful old wooden models of Battersea Power Station as it was in 1935, complete with neatly stacked piles of coal by the quayside.

This room contains big panels of texts and diagrams informing us of what to expect. Not too many surprises. The developer is making  efforts to win over the more influential local residents. For example there will a programme of free cultural events over the summer, involving among others, Battersea Arts Centre. Which is a good sign, isn't it?

The "village hall", which is being built under one of the massive arches, will include a large performance area.

Then there will of course be shops, bars, restaurants galore. Not - we are promised - from the big international chains. Oh no. But neither, judging from the descriptions given here, will they be terribly affordable to the passing public. Well, at least not to the old menaces like me who like to float around with a Sainsburys bag usually containing a couple of charity-shop bargain books and a camera or two.

The view east: any resemblance to San Gimignano or Trebizond is entirely
a figment of this author's fevered imagination.
It should have been great to see what's left of the power station close up again. Of course it never fails to take your breath away - even now. And the scale of the whole redevelopment is also breathtaking, if in a rather different way.

But, seeing the stumps of the chimneys and the non-existent walls and roof of the main hall was also like walking into an operating theatre and seeing an old friend all opened up and bloody on the table.

You just know that when it's finished it will be all scrubbed up and lovely, like a CGI image in a Hollywood movie. It will be hard to tell which are the new bits and which the original. And, it won't matter. Will it.

They've built a neat little viewing platform so you can gaze across the whole development towards Vauxhall.

The new concrete cores of high rise towers, the lift and service shafts, stick out of the churned up soil of Nine Elms. On some they've painted the number of each floor in case they forget where to stop.

 If you screw your eyes up you could almost be looking at the medieval towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany. They were built by wealthy barons, initially to defend themselves, but really to show off their wealth and outdo their neighbours in a macho, phallic display. So what changes?

Well, at least those medieval barons didn't drive SUVs.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Two more art enterprises fall victim to London's property vultures

It's hardly news that London's rapacious property developers are driving anyone who's not rich out of newly-fashionable areas. Among the victims are artists, who are being pushed out of their studios and work-spaces. It's a cliché (and therefore true?) that struggling artists, musicians and their ilk, who always tended to migrate to areas with cheap, large work-spaces, helped to make those areas fashionable and desirable. And then these very people who made the area popular get driven away as rents soar and the bankers, advertising execs and the hedge fund mob move in.

Any hopes that this dismal trend was slowing down have been dashed. It's only February and already, two very different artist-led enterprises in south London have been given notice to vacate their premises, both in once-despised areas that have recently become highly desirable: Vauxhall and New Cross Gate.

These are just two examples that I happen to know personally. The same thing is happening to dozens of others, typically in the areas which have been made more marketable to city commuters by the arrival of the London Overground.

These two places are at different ends of the art world.

The first is LARA - the London Atelier of Representational Art - a well-respected independent art school, known for adapting the classical atelier system for teaching the traditional skills of drawing, painting and sculpting the human figure. The tutors are all successful practitioners, and the students learn by example. They spend weeks and months and years learning to use the sight-sizing methods developed by Italian renaissance artists, to build their knowledge of paints and brushes and pigment, canvases, papers, the lot.

Who could guess that in the basement area of the buildings to the right,
on the busy Vauxhall gyratory system, there's an amazing hive of artistic
activity - the London Atelier of Representational Art.
It runs full-time diploma courses and a  busy schedule of short courses, evening and weekend masterclasses, exhibitions and excursions. It's a hive of intense artistic activity, and at the moment it inhabits the basement of a big old office/warehouse building on an unremarkable part of Vauxhall's one-way traffic system.

Recently LARA was given notice that the building they've been in for several years is going to be demolished for re-development later this year. They're going to have to leave by late summer, meaning students on their three-year diploma course could face disruption (although LARA already has its sights on alternative premises).

So here's a unique, creative organisation which provides employment for dozens of artists, tutors, models and others, which is at the heart of an international revival of the atelier method, and which has also played a part in the re-energization of this fascinating part of London. So close to the centre, and yet so different. And now of course the money-men have noticed, and the place - which survived so much, including one of the most murderous traffic systems in London - is now being torn apart for the development of high-rise luxury flats and "serviced office accommodation".

Ironic that, as a new upmarket Newport Street gallery owned by Damien Hirst opens in Vauxhall, so the organisations that will create future artists are being pushed out.

The second sad story is another hive of creativity: the ASC Studios in Bond House, Goodwood Road, New Cross Gate. This big old former factory, just round the corner from the railway station,  currently hosts over 100 artists' studios of varying shapes and sizes as well as exhibition spaces.

Amongst them are a celebrated community project, The Gate Darkroom, which started in 2011 and provides  studio, developing and printing facilities for hundreds of photographers, students and other artists.

These studios are just over the road from Goldsmiths; they are part of that incredible ecosystem of creative talent that's existed in this corner of south east London for decades, and which every so often erupts into international notice, as with Hirst and Co back in the 90s.

There's no doubt that proerty people - estate agents, the lot - owe a huge debt to these artists, students, the punks and poets and actors and activists who have between them, over decades,  created a unique atmosphere in the Deptford - New Cross - Peckham - Camberwell valley. That's one of the reasons this area is now so sought-after.

But alas the area is also succumbing to the Overground effect. Wherever this extremely useful railway lines goes, it carries a parasitic virus with it: the dreaded virus, Luxuriosa domos. The Overground trains arrive, then sure enough, along come outbreaks of "New-London-vernacular" flats, which pop up like a bad case of measles alongside the stations.

No doubt Bond House will go the same way, soon after the artists are kicked out on March 26. There's already a crop of them just round the corner.

ASC is one of several organisations that exist to secure affordable spaces for artists and craftspeople of all types, all ages, all nationalities. But no-one is immune to the squeeze: and there is no government or even local London legislation to ring-fence certain types of property, apart from the listing system for buildings "of special architectural or historic interest considered to be of national importance and therefore worth protecting".

Perhaps they could add: "and cultural, educational or local community" interest to those, as well as building up a strong "continued public access and purpose of use" to this admitrable system.   This is what should be happening NOW!

Or maybe legislation that forces developers to provide alternative, equally well-positioned accommodation to any of the above that they displace, and that that should only happen with full agreement on all sides - current occupiers, other local businesses and residents.

But this is pipe-dream stuff in the world of Theresa May and co.

In both the cases I cite above, hard-working dedicated artists and students will have their long-term plans disrupted, even wrecked by the impatient greed of property people - these ones who are perhaps trying to squeeze the last millions out of the London property market before it goes pop when all the money men leave for Paris.

Then maybe the cycle will start again. Meantimes there's only one sane response for those with the strength and energy to do it: Squat!


Saturday, 4 February 2017

New US Embassy in Nine Elms nears completion: but will it be blingy enough for Trump's lot?


Well, this is it - the shiny new US Embassy building in the Battersea-Nine Elms-Vauxhall property developers' sand-pit seems to be nearing completion.

Reports suggest the move from Grosvenor Square to the new site south of the river will happen in 2017 - and already you can imagine that the new president and his minions will be having mixed feelings about the shift, not to mention many of his London-based officials who are actually going to have to work south of the river.

Unsurprisingly they will not include ex-pres Obama's choice, Matthew Barzun, who resigned in January. The job of representing Trump's admin in the UK will fall to a new, much older face. The 45th president has named fellow billionaire Woody Johnson, the 69-year-old sports fanatic, owner of the New York Jets NFL team, and heir of the baby-powder and pharma products firm Johnson & Johnson as his man in London.

Of course, this very rich man will not actually live here - he will have the super posh Winfield House in Regent's Park for his private life and his parties, and no doubt he could buy somewhere even grander if this did not suit him. Winfield House, by the way, is named after the founder of Woolworth's. It was owned by Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton in the 1930s, and she gave it to the US government.

But what about Nine Elms? Well, the Americans are getting a big, super-safe, new building surrounded by lots of other big and blingy buildings. But the postcode - oh my dear, SW8!

The photo above shows the semi-translucent cladding that is going to cloak three sides of the cuboid structure. At first sight it looks like the sort of cheap and cheerful tie-on decorative facades favoured by some of the downmarket shops on Oxford Street. It looks temporary, like a strong gust of wind could send it flying.

But according to the architects this stuff performs vital functions in keeping the building cool and shaded in the summer, and also in deflecting the downdrafts of wind that can make life for pedestrians so bad. And the translucency is also meant to symbolise a transparency of government - apparently!

The architects, KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia, also wanted to avoid the fortress-like designs of many other US embassies: not sure if the big watery moat-like pond at the front of the building does much for that ambition. In fact the old embassy in Grosvenor Square was a very smart 60s building - have you ever seen so many windows in one facade? ANd all those rising bollards and so on only went in after 9/11. The old Grosvenor Square made a convenient rallying place for demos: the bleak wasteland of Nine Elms Lane is a much less attractive prospect for all, whether lovers or haters of the new regime.

However, it is no longer the 60s: you imagine Trump might quite the break from this Kennedy-era extravagance. The new Embassy, inits value-for-money postcode,  is said to be one of the most environmentally-friendly embassies ever built. OK that's not the sort of claim that's going to impress the new boss, who doesn't care two hoots about the environment. He'll like the fact that it's cheap to run, but you wonder whether he wouldn't rather stay in Mayfair, protected by huge bollards and close to the gold-plated denizens of the Dorchester and the Hilton and the high-end nightclubs of Shepherd Market.

Well, the old embassy - a 1960 building designed by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen – is going to be turned into a luxury hotel, so he could always hang out there anyway. Or he could just commandeer the Regent's Park house. There's room for two or three couples there, it seems.

Meanwhile, the staff of the new embassy will have plenty to explore in their lunch breaks and their after-work bonding sessions. There's the famously intense nightlife of Vauxhall itself, for example, plus some lovely (relatively) cheap eating places on Kennington Lane and Wandsworth Road. Maybe the secret gardens and lovely café of Bonnington Square will not be to every G-Man's taste - but of course it's about midway between the US Embassy and MI6, so they could arrange little meetings there.

In the summer a short walk or official car ride will take them to Battersea Park, one of south-west London's most beautiful open spaces. And already they have their very own Waitrose right on the doorstep.

But perhaps these dear Embassy folk will be discouraged from leaving their workplace, and will be kept happy in their sealed environment with Google HQ-style distractions. You know, non-stop free smoothies, a model railway to deliver authentic American burgers and/or sushimi to every work station, bean-bag-filled breakout areas, pool tables, Coke-fountains, wii screens, etc....and a pool of scooters on which to whizz around their new glassy home.

There's talk of a new pedestrian bridge, but where will that take them? Dolphin Square in Pimlico, approximately. Another place favoured by spies, apparently.

Talking of spies, if I had a high-powered telephoto lens I could spy on this new building all day and all night. Its massive bulk has blocked what used to be rather a pleasant distant view of Westminster's Victoria Tower from my bedroom window.

Dammit!







Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Something strange is happening on the Wandsworth Road

Trying but failing to hide itself behind the quirky 1900s facade, the boxy bulk of a new Premier Inn looms over the southern end of fast-changing Wandsworth Road.

Do you remember that scene in the original Alien when the vile creature burst out of John Hurt's chest? Pretty damned unpleasant. Now something very similar has happened at the Battersea end of the Wandsworth Road, where a strange old 1909 building seems to have been harbouring the sperm of a terrible 21st century parasite - and now it has erupted all over the skyline!

A couple of years ago I wrote about the beginning of the demolition of the old Rileys Snooker Hall, which was one of the strangest and most abused buildings down this (Queenstown Road) end of my local arterial route. A little research revealed that this was a historically significant building, completed in 1909  - one of 17 Temperance Billiard Halls built in South London  in the 1900-1910 period, all designed by the architect Norman Evans.

The idea, which began in the teetotal heartlands of England's non-conformist north-west, was to create big, attractive social centres that could lure working men away from the pubs and bars and gin palaces. Inside they got most of the entertainments of a pub, but without the alcohol. Ironic, looking at the building's subsequent history, but still.

Eventually they destroyed the entire, massive complex of old billiard halls, meeting rooms, a lounge bar and a later attachment of a pub/nightclub (anyone remember Inigo's? Often had some of the biggest bouncers I've ever seen, hanging around outside).

Over the course of the year, they destroyed the whole place - except for Norman Evans' distinctive ornate, mock-oriental facade, which was (as is the current way) kept up on a matrix of props and jacks and scaffolds. Then the building work began in earnest; the whole place was shrouded in green plastic netting, there was even more congestion at the always bad Queenstown Road junction, and a crane was erected.

It was widely rumoured that the budget hotel chain Premier Inn was building its latest branch right here on Wandsworth Road, but it seemed hard to believe. Why here? What's there to tempt tourists or even businessmen to this strange, forgotten bit of South west London that doesn't even know if it's Clapham, or Battersea, Nine Elms or what. It more or less straddles the border of the boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth, and is a good 15 minute walk to the nearest underground station (Clapham Common, or 10 minutes to an overground rail station (Wandsworth Road).

So we sort of forgot about it. Then one day  back in December, you look up and see this great bulky six-storey building looming over the old Temperance hall frontage, now tarted up of course. There are big hoardings up at street level still, but they are painted in those distinctive Premier Inn colours.

And, after Christmas, the final wrappers come off, and out pops - not a nasty, sharp-fanged space monster, but  a brand new Premier Inn. As you can see in the pic above, the clash of styles between the flamboyant, almost Disneyland look of the old Temperance Hall and the boxy industrial estate chic of the human storage facility behind it could not be greater.

And, on the Premier Inn website, you'll find an entry for their new hotel "opening soon" in Clapham: a "leafy green oasis in the heart of lively South London".

You can find out exactly how this bulky addition to poor old Wandsworth Road got planning permission here on the London Borough of Lambeth planning site. It's a long and interesting document; some of the objections to this plan are swiftly dismissed. Now we see the reality, we must wonder if our planners had a very clear view of what was being proposed.

Then again, compared with the glass, steel, concrete, gold, marble and bronze nightmare that is being acted out down the road at Nine Elms, you have to admit this is very small beer. It could have been so much worse.

You still have to wonder who will stay there.  I can't imagine the Clapham High Street weekend ravers will find it much use - a long stagger across the common in that state? Besides, they now have a night tube to get them back home.

Meanwhile, now that it has gone, more or less, it's great to read a good architectural history, and Historic England's account of the Temperance Hall movement is an excellent record.

It includes some great observations, eg: "The buildings often used the same decorative materials that pubs used, such as tiled facades and stained glass windows, to create the congenial atmosphere of a public house without the pitfalls of available alcohol. 

"The Temperance Billiard Company Ltd targeted the suburbs of south London, where many new pubs had been built in the late C19, as well as in the north-west of England where the firm originated. Thus, temperance billiard halls by the company are a distinctively south London and north-west England building type, although there are other temperance buildings elsewhere."

There are in fact several other Temperance Halls in this area - one on Battersea Rise, a smaller version of the same building, is now a pub (the Goat). And at Clapham High Street, there's a different, later design, but with the same distinctive tiles and turrets, now the offices of an architect.

Perhaps the best example is in Lewisham, and this building is covered in great detail here.

Meanwhile, poor old Wandsworth Road continues to carry its bus, car  and lorry loads into and out of the city centre, while the residents of the three big and many smaller council estates along its route continue to attempt to make ends meet in the shops, pubs, cafes, bookies, parks, gyms, colleges and charity shops of that long central swathe of the road that is still pretty much unchanged.

This road has long had a truly shabby charm all of its own. Over the past three decades, as surrounding areas gentirifed, it remained a bastion of the old, scruffy south London, with car breakers' yards, junk shops, scary boozers,

Now, at the Northern end it has been totally transformed by the Nine Elms development. Sainsburys, Tesco and now Premier Inn at the other end signal the beginnings of an inevitable change, which will surely accelerate as money from the Nine Elms development washes up this way.

Yes, look out, it's coming. They are nibbling away at both ends: watch out!