We are overwhelmed with things to see in this capital, very often those things we don’t want to see – the fat coffee-clutching commuter who sneezes next to you on the Circle Line, and ubiquitous mice, the hostile chill of a dank November tea time – but the glamour and desire to see what remains naturally unseen in London is something in all of us. Haven’t we had enough of things to see? Don’t you, after a long tedious day at work, yearn for a dark room, a cool compress and some soft lighting to doze to and leave the city behind? Haven’t we all as Londoners had just about enough? “No” seems to be the answer. We can’t have enough – we need more and more and more; more artisan coffee shops spewing flat whites, more neon-lit Zone 4 Sainsburys, more mocktails for London Cocktail Week, more money, more work, more noise. And, seemingly more of London. But we want to find the enigma : we don’t want an ordinary walking tour that will take in the more gruesome dispatches of Jack the Ripper over pseudo late-Victorian gaslight, or the snakes of wide-waisted tourists whose gluttony is for The Houses of Parliament guided tour in seventeen languages. We want to find hidden London, unloved London, abandoned London, terrible London, secret London. A London that we can hold the key to and which can, for an hour or two, be ours and only ours. The 8 million of us who grapple for space here, yearn for an individual, private and privileged subjective performance.
And so to the enigma of Unseen London. Over at Unseen Tours (http://www.socmobevents.co.uk) tours of London are given by homeless, previously homeless and vulnerably housed Londoners. It works as a social enterprise, and perhaps part of its pull is the lack of information on its website. However, the reviews of the walks over at Trip Advisor are outstanding. Then there is Secret London Walks (http://www.secretlondonwalks.co.uk/), and TFL organises tours of its most famous disused station, Aldwych, at £25 a pop, but you have to get in early, otherwise they sell out. Apparently, there are Londoners whose idea of heaven is to wander the century old tiled corridors that so fascinate modern film location scouts, gazing at 1950s adverts for Listerine (I am one of them). In September last year, TFL organised an immersive, theatrical event featuring multimedia and film within Aldwych Station, with which they told the story of the 150 year old network. In 2010, they dressed the station exactly as it would have looked in the Blitz – but without the bombs. The experience sold out immediately. Over at http://www.secret-london.co.uk there is a whole host of information, but most of it is not secret, but blindingly obvious, unless you have just arrived from another world. But that’s the key. Tourists arrive here and are instantly consumed by the idea that there is another London, aside from the quotidian, commerical every day horror story in which we earn our bread and sup our beer. Surely, they think, this hole, this slum – it can’t be it. Can it??
It’s nearly embarrassing to say “Well, yes, actually. This is it.” Seeing the grandeur and faded elegance in London seems to be a choice – I say this because some people are oblivious to it, whilst others, like cats pricking up their ears, are more attuned. But haven’t you had a night out like this? Inevitably, the evening starts well – a tasty dinner, a riotous round of gin-based drinks, a trickling tumble out onto a dark and busy central London street. Most of the party have been alive to London’s rhythms and limits for some time now, but perhaps one of the party is less accustomed to a Saturday night in London, perhaps this is a rarity to that person. And, more likely, this is the person who has whites of their eyes swilling around in various directions, and who is seeking something – unknown to even himself – secret – some other, kinkier, more expert, more dynamic, more glamourous London. A generation ago you could have sent him into waste his money in a basqued-up Soho dry hump, but unfortunately if you head to Soho these days you’re more likely to have a vegan ice cream and fall over Prince Harry’s ex girlfriend outside the (non smoking) Hummus cafe. These days, your friend would have to head further North or East in search of his fictional, wondrous Secret London experience, half fuelled by wine, the other half by fear. And you might never see him again.
Your friend can’t see the London wood for the London trees. The truth is that beauty is around us everywhere and its thrilling if you know how (not where) to look. West London photographer Peter Dazeley has spent the last four years getting access to – and photographing – unusual parts of London. His book “Unseen London” is out this week, proffering never before seen images of the city. Apparently, his original inspiration was witnessing the gradual demise of the Battersea Power Station from his flat. (his book contains photographs of its Control Room) . In an interview with the Daily Telegraph Dazeley commented on the months of legal paperwork and admin that was required to gain access to some of our most neglected and disused buildings. Amongst the gems he finally broke through the red tape to snap are Wandsworth Prison – which, when I saw a picture of it online reminded me of nothing more than the set for the slightly-maligned Musical film “Nine”, BBC TV Studio One – which as many who participate in audiences for Strictly et al can verify, is shockingly small, the interior of Aldwych Tube Station (Unused, except by location scouts for film), The Whitechapel Bell Foundry and the remains of a 16th Century Nursery. The Bank of England bullion vaults and The Royal Opera House wouldn’t let him in, but it’s their loss. Dazeley, it seems, is fascinated by the living history of our buildings and perhaps slightly perplexed by the city’s sometimes neglectful view of them. If you Google him, you’ll see some wonderful pictures online. But what you should do is buy his book.
Make no mistake : this is the closest, physically and spiritually any one of us will get to unlocking a secret London. Because there really really is no secret network of fabulous late night nightclubs, no non-seedy yet commercial sexual transactions, no mini Casablanca wine bar waiting to be discovered by a drunk man from Guildford off High Holborn. Look, I’m sorry about that – but London simply isn’t a film set tied up with rococo rooms in which we truly become ourselves amongst dry martinis and palm trees. It’s a slog, it’s a ratfest, it’s sucking away our money and our freedom, but we all have a moral obligation to continue to see its grandeur. The nearest you’ll get to a hidden London is a book of photographs of what you haven’t been bothered to look at (it may also be worth checking out V S Pritchett’s sublime London Perceived, written in 1962, with prose by Pritchett and wonderful photographs by Evelyn Hofer. Because what Pritchett’s book shows is that there are swathes of London that he photographed now gone for ever. 1962 is a long way back in the city archives, the pace of life and shape of buildings could be from 100 years ago, in some photographs). So get out there and have a look whilst you can. How many of us stop to look at the strangeness of London’s history when we pass it by? Who amongst us has the inclination, or the time? Why have we chosen to take so much of our history for granted? Well, because it’s there. And there’s no rush giving it our attention, because it always will be – won’t it?
Unseen London’ by Peter Dazeley, with text by Mark Daly (Frances Lincoln £30).
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. The blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you again on Thursday 23rd October. Thank you for stopping by and reading – and if you like what you have seen here please tell other Londoners. xx