The Ghost of Henry Fitzroy

My grandmother died on the morning of November 22nd 1990, her last victory being that her reign managed to outlive that of Mrs Thatcher by about two hours.   Before she managed the bitter success of outliving Mrs Thatcher, she did several things, including marrying my grandfather (somebody had to), birthing my father and spending thirty years of her life pleasantly residing in what my father termed “a notorious north London slum”.  The same week that she died, this slum was granted conservation status by Westminster City Council, in order to devise local policies to protect the unique character and architectural heritage of the area.

Conservation areas suspend time whilst causing some frustration amongst the local population, and in conserving themselves, render significant change unimaginable.  Whilst our duty to protect Georgian and Victorian sites is vital, occasionally conservation zones can end up fattening their zones up like a tourist cows ready to be taken to market.  The street where my father grew up without a bathroom is now in a district so up and coming it has already upped and came, and where a one bedroom flat in the newly built Fitzroy Place costs £750,000 and up.  And up and up and up….  As if preserved in Edwardian aspic, the western side of Cleveland Street sits in Georgian splendour, looking down its eighteenth century nose at the southern end of its road, where someone unthoughtfully placed a low rise shopping parade during the arse end of the 1950s, and then, to add insult to architectural injury, in 1965 someone else built London’s most phallic structure in the Telecom Tower, which rises like an irate penis from Cleveland Street’s southern end.  

Many people were upset by the Telecom Tower, in fact the IRA were so offended by its architectural brutalism that they tried to blow up its misconceived revolving restaurant.  Local government reacted by designating London’s first conservation areas in 1967.  Since then 76% of the City of Westminster has become zoned off and conserved, in 54 separate conservation zones, all of which come under the terrifying auspices of the English Heritage Conservation Area Practice codes.  Every Georgian window requiring double glazing, every optimistic roof extension, every suggestion of a solar panel, every commercial business wishing to transfer from A1 to A2 use must pass through the exhaustive remit of not one, but two conservation areas here in Cleveland Street.  Even though the Cleveland Street Conservation Area takes in only a short stretch of buildings south of Greenwell Street and north of Carburton Street, this area is subject to Camden’s Bloomsbury Conservation Area as well, notwithstanding  the watchful eye of the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association, a formidable organisation which has been putting the fear into local businesses, council employees and property developers since its inception in 1974.

What then, is this area that is being conserved?  Why has time chosen to be artificially stopped in this corner of Euston?  Who, or what, dear friends, is Fitzrovia?  It is not, like Soho or Mayfair, an actual geographical location but rather, like Hollywood, an idea, a sense of a place.  No one appears to have used the name Fitzrovia until the early twentieth century and, as we shall see, the area’s story goes back an awful lot further than that.  First, we are going to take a trip back about 300 years.  And we are going to stop right there, no – hang on – THERE.  Charles II’s sex life.

There wouldn’t be any history at all in England after the seventeenth century if it wasn’t for Charles II’s sex life.  Charles II hardly had any time to be a monarch, so preoccupied was he with having sex and spawning a startling amount of royal bastards.  All of his illegitimate children were subsequently ennobled.  His most famous paramour was Barbara “call me Babs, your Majesty!” Villiers, who was so good at having sex with the king that he wasted no time at all in giving her the title of Duchess of Cleveland.   Among the five children she had with him was Henry Fitzroy, who was first created Earl of Euston and then Duke of Grafton.  At this point she got tired of naming her children after public houses and started shagging John Churchill.    The name “FitzRoy” means of course, “Son of the King”, but this Henry Fitzroy is not the first Henry Fitzroy.  We have to go back even further to find him.  The first Henry Fitzroy was born in 1519, the only illegitimate child that Henry VIII recognised as his own, and before the First Henry Fitzroy’s death at the age of 17 in 1536, he was cajoled into marriage at the age of 14 to the daughter of the very Catholic Duke of Norfolk, in a rascally attempt to secure a Catholic marriage and possible succession.   I spent most of yesterday trying to work out what on earth happened to the Fitzroy line between the Tudor age and the late Stuart one.  I could find no trace of it.  Eventually, I gave up shouting at the computer when I couldn’t find anything.  Suffice to say, the land we now know as Fitzrovia was marshland studded by the occasional farm, an unhappy pig and ancient woods until well into the 1750s.  

London place names change identity, just to confuse us.  Cleveland Street was known as Green Lane, then Upper Newman Street and then, by the time a young Charles Dickens lived there in about 1817, Norfolk Street.  Perhaps this is sinister echo of the machiavellian Duke of Norfolk manipulating a young, consumptive Henry Fitzroy into marriage.  Either way it still doesn’t quite know what it is when it eventually gets to be called Cleveland Street at some point in the mid-nineteenth century.  It snaps down the middle of itself into a schizoid street plan.  The eastern side of the street is in the parish of St Pancras, the west in St Marylebone.  The council followed suit : the eastern side of the street is under the remit of The City of Westminster whilst the western side languishes in The London Borough of Camden.  The eastern side of the street is the beginning of the Southampton Estate ( that controlled by the Fitzroy family and various Charles II love children) and the western marks the beginning of the Great Portland Estate.  This is neither the West End or North London, neither east nor west, but an undistinguished thoroughfare somewhere in the middle, providing access to Oxford Street in the south and the New Road (later Euston Road) in the north.   By 1793 the Fitzroys are rolling with their homies, namely James and Robert Adam, and are on a superb building spree of neo-classical proportions in Fitzroy Square. 

There are, according to the Cleveland Street Conservation Area Audit, Grade II buildings, as well as “unlisted buildings of merit”, amidst the former work rooms and commercial businesses that, after a brief, unconsummated flirt with Georgian gentrification,  sent Cleveland Street on its slow downward social spiral.  The rococo finery of Fitzroy Square around the corner looms out in lurid splendour in comparison, continuing to attract the stylish and rich and talented and when it couldn’t attract them it attracted Virginia Woolf.  Cleveland Street wasn’t so lucky.  The Conservation Area Audit from www3.westminster.gov.uk insists on mis-spelling Woolf’s name and sort of cobbles her together with “residents of social and artistic importance”, but the only other one they can think of is George Bernard Shaw.    Cleveland Street, says our audit, became “less affluent and more commercially focused” throughout the nineteenth century, thereby setting it firmly on its course to become the slum mentioned above.

“This district has significance as a physical record of social and cultural history, which in turn has contributed to a great sense of community pride” the audit continues, before being attracted by more interesting aspects of Cleveland Street, such as it’s “one-way traffic flow” , and flinging about words like “thriving” and “lively” which could basically describe anything.    The section of bona fide, 20-carat, Georgian Grade II listed buildings in the centre of Cleveland Street are the plump raisins in the centre of the town planning cake.  People get very excited about Georgian houses that were once houses for those dressed in finery, descended into flatlets, stumbled into poverty, eventually became mired in neglect and now appear to have come full circle for people dressed in finery once more.  “In contrast” to these Georgian houses, it says, is a mid-19th century listed public house, The George & Dragon, a pub which, during the war, frequently vomited out patrons at closing time, singing “Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the Jews on the run.”  Of course, you won’t read about that in many urban history audits, and I only know it because inconsiderate V1 rockets insisted on disturbing my father at night around closing time, whilst he was trying to sleep in his flat up the street.  But it’s one thing to be woken up by Germans throwing bombs at you, but quite another to woken up by a group of anti-semites…. Oh. 

In its desire to preserve and enhance, the audit sings of “yellow stock brick” and “Flemish bond” in the Georgian, fairly raffish, shoddy looking specimens on the street’s western side. There are “patterns of fenestrations”, “butterfly roofs” and “unadorned parapets”.  Then we get some pictures of doors and a “decorative knocker”, before a very stern paragraph in which we are told, as if we were naughty children, that “original architectural features are vital to the architectural quality of buildings” – Really? Doh – and strictly admonished that we remember Policy DES 9 C, which states that the council “will not allow schemes which involve the loss of original features”.  Policy DES 9C!  Of course I remember you!  My fave read.  I’ve heard that Policy DES C9 is being turned into a musical!     Well, perhaps not, although last year did see the brief theatrical appearance of “Cleveland Street : The Musical” which was a song-and-dance version of the male brothel / telegrams / Whoops there goes Prince Albert scandal of 1888.  I stress that my father was not involved in that.

The audit continues, commenting that the Telecom Tower can be seen from “many directions”, which is bloody obvious, because I’d be visible from many directions if I was 619 metres tall.  They comment that “railings and boundary walls contribute significantly to the character of conservation areas” and then spend three paragraphs bitching about the railings not been nearly good enough, mainly because poor people lived in the houses they surrounded for about a hundred years.  And I cannot tell you the level of near orgasmic delight they achieve when singing the praises of the “cylindrical open heritage style litter bin”.   What they do not write about or mention is that neighbourhood streets such as this one only retain they much talked of liveliness and vivacity if they have a stable micro-economy, i.e. if a number of these buildings within conservation zones are specifically ear marked for commercial or small enterprise use, thereby blowing a much needed clean sweep of fresh air through this former neglected corner of Euston.   As anyone who has ever walked through a newly-rich conservation area in central London will tell you, this does not tend to happen.  Businesses don’t move in to negotiate the council red tape and listed building statuses.  Residents do.

“Heritage style” was a phrase that was barely in existence until about 15 years ago. In the 1990s the world “holistic” was everywhere and no one was quite sure what that meant, either.  This decade it’s the turn of “heritage”.   I was astonished to find I was recently eating a heritage beetroot.  Much satire was made in the BBC comedy series 2012 about the discrepancy between “heritage”, “legacy” and “sustainability” efforts, but no one was capable of articulating the difference between the three.   The word “heritage” means things of value or cultural worth that are passed down and inherited through the ages.  But there must be the knowledge that what you are choosing to preserve within that heritage has a real, true worth.  What if the street you are preserving in a jar was a bit shit?  Or, a bit deprived.  Or, in one of Euston’s former most socially neglected wards? Why can’t we knock some of these sad buildings down and start again?  Because they are, put simply, old.   Older items are getting dressed up and coated in new paint so we can forget their histories, so we can gaze at the one surviving coal hole cover in this street which, for some reason, somebody at City of Westminster Council has chosen to “record and retain” , despite the fact that the coalman who delivered for forty years was delighted to see the back of it, and the housewife who had to spend half of her marriage shoveling its contents about probably only smiled for the first time when her husband told her they were having central heating installed.

At what point does an “historic characteristic” become just another reminder of the poverty-stricken history of Euston and Fitzrovia that the area is trying to shake off?  There is no merit in choosing to seek historical authenticity in urban poverty.  These are not subjects for cultural validity.  They are subjects for shame.  The twelve door buzzers by an early Victorian door, the scuffed and maltreated front steps, the washing suspended from lines inside sitting rooms; these are things of incalculable embarrassment to anyone who lived in the richest city on earth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.   How tall and mean must the houses be to remind us of their previous overcrowding?   The former Cleveland Street Workhouse is not listed under the “negative features” section, although to all intents and purposes it should be, as perhaps nothing is more embarrassing to the modern British mind than the reminder that our poor were sent to die in houses of penal correction.  Instead the report mentions the things that do not matter such as unsightly cables, cluttered flues and unwanted wires.

Perhaps the most telling phrase in the whole report is that “services should be concealed where possible”.  In Britain, where it is legal to be a prostitute but illegal to go outside your front door to advertise the fact, the preoccupation is largely on what face we choose to show the outside world, rather than what goes on inside the city’s front doors.  No one really minds that the early Victorian doors have never fitted in their frames because generation after generation of slum landlords have never cared to mend them.  No one really minds that the architect lives in a flat that once housed four families.  There is, however, a permanent undertaste of squalor in this part of town, which no end of oak flooring and marble slabbed bathrooms can remove. 

Only in the last 45 years have we introduced the idea of “conserving” patches of the city, and thereby preventing the innate urban flow of development and progress to run its course.  I am not suggesting for a moment that we allow developers to ride roughshod over our loved buildings, far from it.  But a more integrated approach is needed unless London is to turn into an architectural series of rich villages, where people may buy flats in former Victorian slums at extortionate prices, safe in the knowledge that social housing will never be able to be built beside them.   Fitzrovia is an area that still has its pockets of social deprivation, because, irritatingly, the poor don’t go anywhere.  Unless, of course they are lucky enough to get out.  Whilst conservation areas perform a vital task in ensuring the cultural and architectural survival of so much of our city, we must also question how normal it is for 76% of one’s major city to be, in essence, within the architectural and building use control of the state.  As an urban space, London’s engine is its own power of energy and regeneration, its own flow of money, creation and enterprise, which – like never before – is needed to bring the next generation of Londoners out and up through the economic collapse.  What isn’t needed is to artificially extend the life of jerry-built housing and cramped workrooms, and pump them full of money like an old woman’s face filled with collagen in the misguided belief she is making something anew.  Just because a building is old, it does not automatically become rendered worthy of “heritage” or preservation.   In the late 1970s, a full decade before the establishment of the Cleveland Street Conservastion Zone, the crumbling block of flats in Cleveland Street where my father grew up was knocked down.   He wasn’t sentimental about it.  He simply said it was too ignoble to survive.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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BoJo Flaptop MopHead

With the exception of six months hotly watching the BBC Parliament Channel as a sickeningly diligent Politics & Government A Level student, I don’t do party conferences.  I don’t really do politics.  I can’t understand why rational people believe in it, year after year, election after election.  I’ve stopped voting because, although I have believed the lies of handsome, stupid men in my time, but I don’t know why I would wish to be consistently lied to and let down by a succession of ugly ones.   Oh, do me a favour, fellow Britons.  I’d rather eat my computer screen than vote for anyone, because I don’t have the necessary qualifications in Bovine Stupidity that you need to believe a manifesto.  Oh yes!  The Labour party are going to give out free apples but the Conservative Party are going to tax bananas and make us eat them!  No, they’re not, children.  They’re going to become sex pests, waste our millions, get oranges, shove them up their irascible arses and disgrace themselves and embarrass their families when the Daily Express finds them tied up in a whorehouse in Croydon.

 Watching the Mayor of London, though, isn’t like watching parlimentary politics.  Although the Mayor has a shedload of responsibilities, it seems to me an endless popularity pageant dotted with the occasional Bus Policy and photo opportunity at City Hall.  Mayor of London is like being one of those soldiers that stand outside St James’s Palace all day, in those big, furry hats that look like massive vaginas.  Yes, we know they’re traditional, and a rather sort of good thing, we quite like to have our photo taken with them for comedy value, but we don’t for a moment know what the hell they’re actually doing there.  Boris Johnson is a bit like that : a massive vagina lodged somewhere between a monarchic palace and Piccadilly Circus.  The purpose of him appears to be to incite jolllity and impress us with his vocabulary talents, to retain popularity whilst wiping out historical buildings in Tower Hamlets on the quiet. 

He was choc-full of gingery, spicy facts at the Conservative Party Conference on Tuesday.  Apparently, the murder rate in London is lower than it was in the 1960s, whereas in Noo Yawk it is four times higher, he tells us.  Presumably it was so high in London in 1960s because of all those winklepicker shoe-related deaths in Beatlemaniac episodes where thousands of young shiny British teens threw themselves towards Macca’s mop top and ended up spearing their heads on George Harrison’s sharp wit.   In other Mayoral observations, Soho is not a “seat of debauchery” any longer, apparently.  I’d suggest he just isn’t looking in the right places, but then if there’s one chap who knows where to find a whip and chain after 7 bottles of Courvoisier in Wardour Street in the small hours, it would be Mr B Johnson, of London S.W.

As if the former colonies needed any further insult lobbed at them from political lobby London, it was with some relish that BoJo informed his audience of hot-footed, sexy and downright gorgeous (*NOT*) Conservative Party faithfuls that the bendy buses of London are now “clogging up the streets of Malta”.    I have been to Malta.  The bendy bus can only improve this dreadful island.  But then it was on to the serious stuff.  I mean the really serious stuff that fills the glossy balding heads of the centre-right luminaries.  Every single chocolate hobnob in the WORLD is made in London.  The conference gasped.  Here the Conservative Party made its worst failure in many years by refusing to produce a raft of knob jokes.  For this we should not forgive them.  We need a statesman with panache.  Cameron is as panache-filled as a two week old stick of celery that was left in the fridge at Conservative Party HQ and which someone just forgot to throw in the bin with last week’s focaccia. 

According to Johnson’s wonderful and lugubrious utilisation of English vocabulary, one of the great joys of the theatre of watching him, was the bizarre phrase that, prior to the start of London 2012 “a giant hormonal valve was opened in the minds of the people”. Never before has the Olympics been described as some kind of enormous mental menopause.  After our giant hormonal whatsits we were all then “suffused with the Ready Brek glow of happiness”.  New Labour also made “such a Horlicks of the Millenium Dome celebrations in 2000”, apparently, and I’m not going to deny that.   BoJo is an unadulterated attack of wordage, of badinage, of linguistic contortions.  As the Standard commented on Tuesday,  this is how “dangerously a classical education can be deployed”.   The danger of Johnson is that he is perceived as a thing of rhetoric, rather than a thing of action, conjugating Latin verbs whilst he races through City Hall passing laws and doing rather competently, thank you.

Cameron grits his teeth and goes on early morning television to sit on pastel-shaded sofas where he is forced to lick up the Johnson worship.  “I have the opposite of tall poppy syndrome, ” he said. “I want to see big stars in the Conservative Party”.  No you don’t you moron.  Big poppies come along and act mad and promote Latin in schools and tap into the nation’s consciousness and CUT OFF the heads of little poppies.  And as poppies go, Mr D C, you are little poppy.  Mini poppy.  Poppy seed.  When it came to Cameron’s Wednesday speech at the conference, the Standard’s ES LIVE running blog seemed so unimpressed and bored by the proceedings that they broke off from constant twitter-like blogging of the conference to announce things like “BREAKING NEWS : One of the members of Pussy Riot has been given a suspended sentence”.   Then it returned to “blah” like Cameron comments about Britain being number one in the world for offshore wind…er..things. 

The problem is that I don’t truly care about either of them, but surely BoJo is the threat that the government are reduced to stroking in public, like an evil kitten?  The public like the evil kitten.  They excuse BoJo all the things that they won’t excuse Cameron for (being raaather po-osh, having between to Eton, having posh hair etc) only because of his beguiling and entrancing way with language, and his apparent refusal to take anything seriously, whilst behind the scenes he drafts Machiavellian masterplans and is, I would put my tenner on, seriously and malignantly plotting some kind of Roman Empire-esque takeover.  Mark my words, BoJo is not the man who will fiddle whilst Cameron burns.  He’s too busy lassoo-ing unfortunate females into extra marital affairs with his albino-like hair.  Cameron’s lack of statesmanship and upper top lip will secure him into a political coffin after the 2015 General Election.  Johnson will most probably stop at nothing to emulate his classical heroes and swiftly move through with political dynamism to take the top spot.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Chelsea Buns

Hold my hand and let’s swing westwards.  Over, past the Palace of Westminster and down towards where the river does a cheeky little loop.  Stop there.  Yes, just by Peter Jones.  For this is Sloane Square, the gateway to Chelsea, London’s most stalwart and distinguished rich borough.  Here we find much beauty – some exceedingly pretty leaded windows in tall thin houses overlooking the Thames at Cheyne Walk, the pale, white lampposts overlooking the Thames that flush beautiful shapes over the river, and swathes of rich Russians in vast cars honking their horns and schlepping down the Kings Road with sturdy looking girlfriends who have shoulders like Ukraine shotputters.

Here the chavtastic characteristics of this most exclusive borough were so vulgar that someone turned it into a TV programme.  One can only imagine what James Whistler would say.  Well, he wouldn’t say anything, obviously, he’d just paint it.  But there was no chavvy behaviour in Chelsea in the 1870s, which is why you will never see a Whistler painting that depicts a yellow sports car trying to reverse park outside Peter Jones.  Thomas Carlyle, George Meredith, Algernon Swinburne and Jonathan Swift are just some of the high profile artists and writers who found Chelsea the ideal neighbourhood in the mid-late 19th Century, for thinking and writing.   Even then you needed quite a lot of the green stuff to live there.  There are some who see the decline of the inventiveness and style of areas in London that are super-rich sub-villages as a direct result of gentrification.  Well, you can’t throw that accusation at Chelsea.  It’s been gentrified since about 1650.  Although it is a bastion of upper middle class Englishness I wonder what it has, in the last 15 years, lost.  The same could be said of the bit in Notting Hill that elbows against Holland Park Avenue, as detailed in last night’s “The Story of Our Streets”, which focused on the bankers-hellhole-financial-ghetto blank blandness that is present-day Portland Road, W11. 

Unsurprisingly, the programme showed Portland Road to be a dissolute riot of primal gluttony.  Chunks of West London have deteriorated into virtual communities where the post office becomes a shop selling vintage vases and the grocery shop becomes a shop that contains something no one understands but where every item costs £100,000.  The anaemia of these communities is inevitable and faintly depressing.  This has been happening in Chelsea for a longer, more sustained period.  I am not one of those people who romance the torrid slums of yesteryear by excusing it on the basis that writers, artists and poets were able to live there.  A slum is a slum, and therefore a disgrace.  The tendency to romanticise poverty is a nasty, unpleasant middle class habit.  Whilst the blandness of these heavily antiseptic, lonely and increasingly quiet rows of bankers villas do change an area, it is important to note that whilst the artists and writers cannot afford to live there anymore, they do, in fact still live there.  What are the artists and writers like who still live in SW3 and W11?

Perhaps if there are any, they’re like Carlos.  Carlos lives in Mayfair.  He spends most of his days in Avery Row, and creates and exhibits photography in galleries all over London (four this summer, two in his native Mayfair).  He is a fixture in the area.  Like the well-heeled residents of Chelsea, he is also indicative of a long-standing London residential tradition : Carlos has no home and lives on the streets outside the office where I type this, and retails the Big Issue whilst condusting vast acrobatic hand gestures and nimble body contortions.  He can ripple a copy of The Big Issue up his back without using his hands.  He pirouettes into the pathway of hassled office workers on their way back from Pret A Manger.  He smiles and jumps about trying to make people laugh.  He is an excellent travelling, self-taught photographer who uses London, amongst other cities, as his muse.  You can view his work here  (www.carlosphotography.com) .  I can only imagine that Chelsea too must have its wave of Carlos’s, as will everywhere. More and more homeless nomads are seen on London’s streets.  When we speak of residents of an area, we chose to make invisible those who do live in the area but who do not have a house.  This is an error.  They live in an area, just as anybody else. 

Yesterday afternoon I crossed the junction of Holland Park Avenue and Portland Road on my way to an appointment.  This end of Portland Road is ostentatiously referred to as the “rich end”.  Yet, there they were.  The selection of hardy perennials, with no teeth, ranting, drinking, engaging with various levels of psychosis, with clothes unchanged for the best part of ten years.  The residents, who live in the same streets, who are not referred to in any sense during the BBC’s “The Story of Our Streets” but who are residents, nonetheless.  It doesn’t matter how much money you have ; you cannot possibly afford to avoid them.  No one from the BBC crew seemed to interview them, which was a mistake : sometimes the most observing and consistent eyes that a neighbourhood can provide are those who stand on the streets all day watching, looking and noticing.  The wives of bankers getting pedicured in the Cowshed speak very much, but know astonishingly little, and one of them was so alarmingly dim I wondered whether she was all “there”.

Chelsea still has a sublime side to it.  The Albert Bridge is London’s most beautiful bridge.  The all-encompassing dark blue light on an evening in Cheyne Walk bewitches and lulls the onlooker into a placid sense of charm.  Westbourne Grove will never be anything but a lovely fun place to lunch and shop, full of wonderful architecture and boho bourgeois eateries. But whilst the neighbouring areas of Kensington and Holland Park have retained their luminescent style and sedate West London manner, Notting Hill has begun to go the way of Chelsea.  Chelsea has been plucked out of itself and re-created, into Made in Chelsea, an ignoble, tarnished, sheep dip of a programme which shows SW3 as nothing more than a riot of consumer vulgarity and narcissism, where self-aware television producers create completely un-self-aware characters in order for the masses to have a jolly good laugh when – frankly – they ought to be doing something sensible and more life affirming – like reading a book, or running and bath and then slowly drowning themselves.  Might it turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy?  Surely the evidence suggests that Chelsea couldn’t be more chavvy if it tried, with its plethora of enormous white cars like fridges on wheels, harnessed by stroppy looking Russians and their miserable botoxed girlfriends, ropily bombing up to Peter Jones for more Smeg items and a new flat screen telly.  When did Chelsea lose it’s mojo? 

Holland Park is still delightful.  The roads that run off to the west of Holland Park towards Notting Hill, pastJulie’s, are some of the prettiest in London.  The roads that run out east back towards Kensington sigh and sink into nameless, soundless money.  They maintain their Edwardian grandeur; and the ornate carvings of red brick mansion blocks point up to the skyline with something like grace.  But Chelsea seems to be riding itself into a charmless and sticky grave.  It is uptight and overly pruned.  One wonders if Thomas Carlyle would find the headspace to think anything at all if he tried to write in Chelsea today. What would Whistler choose to paint?  Streets with signs of no human activity, where no one is in from 5am to 8pm and where the paranoid bankers blinds are fully drawn?  There’s only so much a pastel painted, former workman’s cottage can ever be worth, surely?  As the houses of West London vault and soar up beyond the £10million mark, what exactly is being bought into?  Bah – enough futility.  It isn’t interesting.  What is interesting is that innovation, interest and artistry can never be truly dampened.  It’s down to the irrepressibly artistic fervour of the Carlos’s to maintain the balance.  It’s humbling to realise that in a community filled to the brim with excessively rich people those who give the most to fellow human beings in an aesthetic sense are those who have so little in the first place. 

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Mayoral Madness

The Olympic torch has not yet been lit, and already the mayoral elections are high on the news agenda : which one, we are asked, do we want?  Do we want the sexually incontinent, rapacious classicist who reintroduced the Routemaster, or do we want the milk-supping, newt-catcher, who introduced La Bus de Bendy, which looked like one of those plastic snakes that children get in sticky party bags, and which move and jolt around corners of their own accord?  And is this our only choice?   The idea of either makes me want to throw up but there you go.

Even more depressing than the London Mayoral elections is this:  if you start Googling “Who are the London Mayoral election candidates?”  you can get only as far as “Who are the….” and Google Instant pops up with “Kardashians”.  This means that despite millions of stupid money being wasted flooding our media channels with the Kardashians for reasons that are not apparent, most people on Google don’t know who they actually are.  Even worse, most of them want to find out who they are, because they feel their store of knowledge will be enriched in the process. 

I am not at all sure whether Kim Kardashian, or the other Kardashians, would make a better mayoral candidate than Johnson or Livingstone but she can’t do that much worse.  The Liberals have got Brian Paddick who has a friendly face and a winning smile but basically he looks like a chartered surveyor whose wife has just left him.  Meanwhile, over on the extreme right wing fringe, the two brain cells that exist in the entire British National Party have selected a Uruguayian who sounds like a brand of travel agent : Carlos Cortiglia, and whose national origins appear to be in some conflict with one of his party’s policies.  Oh, no hang on, all of his party’s policies.   The opinion polls suggest Johnson will walk it.  But that’s after he has had considerable opportunities for dropping the Olympic torch, slapping the Italian Ambassador on the back and saying “What ho” and accidentally sleeping with half of the Argentinian Ladies Aerobics team.  Twice.

Personally, I’m routing for Dick Whittington, but since 1419 he only appears in the panto season, whereupon he is played by a lady.  I’ve always liked a man who likes cats:

I think as Mayor he should basically rock on up in a pair of his fruitiest medieval tights and – once he has sorted out the tomfoolery that is being carried out in the hospital of his own name – sort out shit.  Check out the cosmopolitan beret.  Look at those sexy ears.  Note how the cat on his lap has the face of a piglet on its way to the slaughterhouse.  Look at that distant, concerned glare in those 15th century eyes, staring off into the distance, as if he is looking at one of those electronic update boards on a Northern Line platform, hoping that the next train will be for Barnet.  Look at this fabulous mink stole (clearly been shopping at Libertys).  I trust this man.

Of course, modern politics is all about being media savvy and I understand perception is all.  We need to track Whitters down and give him a mayoral makeover.  We could put him in stilettos, like this one:

That should sort him out ready for the voting populace.  And the cat’s upgrade:

Put them both on the top of the Routemaster bus and wait for the votes to flood in.  What we don’t want is this sort of Mayor:

Where do we begin with THIS Dick Whittington?  With the fact that the lady in the middle has garroted herself and swapped heads with the lady / chap on the right?  Or that Johnny Depp’s understudy / body double from Pirates of the Caribbean  has crashed the shoot and appeared on the left?  How can the Mayor sign state papers if he doesn’t have any hands?  Why is the gentleman on the right wearing a Debenhams shower cap?  The cat, on the other hand, is downright creepy. 

We need a strong Mayor – like Dick “Call me Richard, peasant” Whittington, who can sort out London’s medieval drains as he did, who kindly organized a hospital ward for the use of unmarried mothers, who opened a library and a public loo and who loved London so much he left his money to the City.  Now.  How about having a mayor these days ethical enough to do that?  We have two dramatic possible Mayors in the principal Conservative and Labour offerings with brush-brandishing Boris and Kinky “I’m a cat” Ken but I wonder, frankly, whether they are both mired in the depths of moral bankruptcy.  When did either of them actually open a public toilet?   Newts may be Ken’s thing, but I am not sure I’d trust Boris to post a letter let alone remember to look after a cat.   What do we then, want our London Mayor to do?:

1.  Cap annual public transport cost increases at 4%

2. Invert the charge rising system on black cabs, to reflect the New York cab system : i.e. fares rise between 10am and 2pm to accommodate business fares and drop to standard rate between 10pm and 2am to accommodate revellers, not the current system, which has a detrimental impact upon entertainment revenues.  This leads me to my third point which is…

3.Take that odious simpleton who’s some kind of parking meter kinky perv at Westminster and who has a parking meter installed in his living room, and who has been spearheading the proposal to abolish free parking in the West End on weekends and evenings and feed him to the gorillas at London Zoo.

4.  Install clocks in tube carriages.  It seems peculiar this has never been done, when we have constant, digital screens reminding us what to change for and where and yet no one knows what the bloody time is.

5.  Make it legal for every Barclays Cycle Hire rider to wear a safety helmet.

6.  Make Johnny Depp Mayor.  Let us kiss his garments and rejoice in his Johnny-ness. 

Simples, eh?

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Quiz time: How much of a Londoner are you?

I wasn’t surprised to see during a recent survey, that Londoners consider them selves patriotic about  their city first and foremost and about their country second and secondmost.  It is also not surprising that it was our very own Evening Standard who happily pointed this out:     http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-24018243-were-proud-londoners-first-then-british.do

I have to bear my colours here; I have never truly understood the point, or trusted the feeling, of patriotism about a country.  I quite simply don’t get it, particularly in a country as diverse as this one, in which being English and hailing from Devon isn’t at all like being English and hailing from Lindisfarne.  In short, it feels like I’m being played, as my Leeds grandmother would have said, for a giddy kipper.  What is the point of patriotism?  To lull me into a sense of national love, so that I would think little of being farmed into the nation’s army and then be killed for something that is worthwhile?  I don’t buy that claptrap, children.  Why should feeling English mean anything, and how could feeling English serve any kind of dutiful purpose?  I fully understand my citizen’s charter.  I understand that I have to go about my business in a law-abiding way, that I do not kill, rape or pillage, that I pay my taxes, that I display munificent humanity and generosity towards my fellow men and that occasionally I stand up for an old person on a bus.  That is the contract.  My feelings are too intensely private to ever come under the vague banner of “civic duty”.  My feelings are my own, and if the British Nation was to enquire what they were regarding themselves, I’d tell them to bugger right off.

Anyway, the survey chimed very much with what I think.  This isn’t one country.  It’s about 7 different countries, possibly 10.  This is a country of great diversions in the regions (diversions that will become more pronounced as the recession / depression /whatever the buggery bollocks it is continues to seep in and bite the British on the bum) and no one from London thinks they’ve got much in common with people in Peterborough, let alone the Cornish.  I would say my religion is that I am a Londoner.  I identify with the city.  I haven’t seen most of the rest of the country, anyway, apart from that lost weekend in Devon with George Clooney (and I’m much too discreet to discuss that here) so what kind of an authority would I be on the rest of it?  In this survey, Peter Stringfellow, that most classy of delectable Yorkshiremen said “I’m British if we go to war, but apart from that I’m a Londoner first.”

Oh, that’s all right then.  So, if we engage ourselves in the Franco-Turkish Thong and Nipple Tassel Wars, we could be safe that Commander Stringfellow would be in charge of hostilities.    But it raises an interesting point;  a Sheffield native is no more or less a Londoner than you or me.  London is a state of mind, and you don’t have to be born here to be one.  We are magnaminous, and take converts.  Just like the Liberal Synagogue.  The survey showed that 53% of us are “very attached” to the City, whereas only44% of Londoners were “very attached” to England.  This is the kind of statistic that has the retrogressive naysayers cradling their Daily Mails and weeping for a better England, and complaining that there is no sense of pride in the country.  It doesn’t mean that of course.  It means that most of us in London don’t go anywhere else and particularly don’t tend to leave our region that much so don’t really know what the rest of England is like.  This, usually, has a lot to do with being descended from foreign stock, and feeling (aha – there’s that non-civic word again!)  that the rest of England doesn’t really speak to us.  This is more common than you think and basically goes on for centuries after arriving here.  

So, here are, kids – a festive questionnaire.  You may only work here, you may choose to shop here, you may have been born here and then made a rapid break for the Home Counties border, you may have relocated to Quebec, but the question to all of you is – how much of a Londoner are you?

a).  It is 5.15pm on the Friday before Christmas and you are standing in the middle of Hamleys with several hundred hysterical adults and children.  Do you:

  1. Make a calm beeline for the Wii and then head for that till at the back that you know will have a shorter queue.
  2. Worry about a terrorist attack, shout at the children and dream of getting home to a hot bath and a cold beer.
  3. Have an anxiety attack and faint, keeling over onto a six foot model of Paddington Bear.

b).  Complete this sentence : “Cleopatra’s Needle is…..”

  1. A large stone edifice on the edge of the Thames that was stolen from the Egyptians.
  2. A casino run by Egyptians.
  3. An Egyptian-based sewing group that meets fortnightly

c) You are invited to a Devon manor house for Christmas.  Do you:

  1. Break out into a cold sweat, threaten to vomit if taken beyond the orbit of the M25 and immediately say to the person who suggested it that they have gone “completely bonkers”.
  2. Worry about the roads / cows / pigs / farmers / killers that approach isolated manor houses in the night.
  3. Pack a pheasant, guns and your Duke of Windsor tweeds and look forward to pretending you are in an episode of Downton Abbey bossing proles and servants about.  Hello your Lordship!

d).  You are alone in Soho at 1am.  A man with a broken jaw and one eye asks you if you have a light. Do you:

  1. Give him a light and then recognize him as the man you briefly lived with when you were 23 back when he had a full head of hair.
  2. Say “No” in your best Headmistress voice and feel smug that you don’t expose yourself to the nastiness of this city life too much.
  3. In Soho at 1am?  Are you mad?  I wouldn’t live to see morning.  Some London guttersnipe would cosh me over the bonce with a hammer and rob me of my kidneys and sell them on Ebay.  It’s LONDON, you know.

e).  You need to get from Mayfair to Euston.  Do you:

  1. Walk across Oxford Street, nip up Great Portland Street, wiggle up around New Cavendish Street and Warren Street and then dah daaah.  You’ve arrived.
  2. Get the tube from Piccadilly Circus to Green Park, and then Green Park to Euston – which you hate.
  3. Get out the sat nav, panic that if you use it in broad daylight in the West End you will be mugged, weep, and then give up and get a taxi.

f).  What is the difference between North London and South London?

  1. About a universe.  We don’t go there and they don’t come here – and most Londoners assume you need a passport to travel from Westminster to Lambeth.
  2.  About half a mile of river.
  3. Who cares.  They’re just two foul urban stretches of decay populated by fools, students, halfwits and cockneys.

g).  What’s the best thing about London?

  1. Arriving home at Heathrow and seeing a black cab
  2. The theatre and shops – although you sometimes tire of the expense
  3. The M1 heading north out of it

h).  At lunchtime you find yourself in a Clerkenwell gastropub.  Do you…

  1. Get drunk, order a steak, settle on a brown leather sofa and get cosy
  2. Get drunk, complain about the service and refuse to pay £10.50 for a hamburger
  3. Get drunk, get offensive, shout that this is a “trendy wine bar” and that there’s a place in Gloucestershire where you get better local produce at half the price, wipe the mud off your wellington boots on the carpet and get asked to leave the premises, please, madam.

i). What is the “Silicon Roundabout”?

  1. The area around Old Street famed for its silicon chip and software innovations performed by youngsters in uber-fashionable clothing.
  2. The junction of Harley and Wimpole Streets, famed for its plastic surgery consultation rooms.
  3. A record player.

j). At closing time in the local hostelry you are most likely to say….

  1. The best place to get a cab is outside the nearest 5 star hotel.  Let’s walk that way and grab a drink on the way at a bar.
  2. Is there some sort of secret, terribly exciting strip club I can visit now I’m in town? Do they accept Amex?
  3. Collect your sheepdog from beside the open fire, pop your personal pewter mug on the mantelpiece and head out across the hills to your rural homestead.

k). What accent was Dick Van Dyke trying, and failing, to execute in the film of Mary Poppins?

  1. Cockney Lahndahn.  Cor Blimey Guvnor, Strike a light etc
  2. Belfast
  3. Spanish

l). What was your last big social evening event?

  1. Shoreditch wine bar, rapidly followed by Smithfield restaurant and a cab ride home that you don’t entirely remember with someone called Richard who worked in IT.
  2. West End musical, post show supper at Joe Allen and a dash for the last train, all of which you thoroughly enjoyed.
  3. The Annual Countryside Alliance dinner dance – South West England branch – where you accidentally injured the Master of the local Hunt on the dancefloor with your enthusiastic dancing to “I’ve Got A Brand New Combine Harvester”.

m).  What famous consulting detective lived in Baker Street?

  1. Sherlock Holmes
  2. Chap from Midsomer Murders
  3. What is Baker Street? 

Mostly 1’s:  You dapper, urban flibbertygibbert you.  You are a Londoner; cool and collected in the face of Oxford Street madness and able to handle yourself on our dastardly, dirty city streets.  10/10.  You know the best routes through the city and are comfortable in the trains underground.  A bit like a rat.  Make sure you don’t develop Woody Allen Syndrome, where you become so conditionned to the city you panic if someone suggests going anywhere else.

Mostly 2’s.  You tart.  Mostly you treat London as a buffet, nipping in for the fruitiest chunks and the best dips when the mood takes you.  Most probably you’re a native Londoner who’s rippled out to the borders, venturing into the centre for vicarious London-like pleasures but returning to a outer suburb at twilight.  The general consensus is you have the best of both worlds, but be wary of becoming too jaded about the city.

Mostly 3’s.  What are you doing here?  How did you even find this website?  You think people who live in cities are all nutters.  All of your shoes have mud caked on them.   So do most of your relatives.  It’s possible that when you wondered onto this ‘ere London Bluebird you thought Armageddon had come.  Move away from the Blog.  There is nothing for you here.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 

Water, water, everywhere – and not a drop to drink.

Yesterday morning, when I woke up at silly o’clock, I had no water in the house.  Turned taps on : nothing.  Not a drop.  I was forced to wash up and brush my teeth using a small bottle of mineral water.  It reminded me of Greek Island holidays where, fresh from the bruised tetanus jab at the local surgery, you are terrorised into mixing Colgate with pre-packed bottled water for the next two weeks in order to maintain some degree of dental hygiene because people in England have convinced you that if you don’t you’ll return to Gatwick with tetanus lockjaw.  It did make me realise how important caffeine was to me.  I couldn’t give a monkey’s about the water, but the coffee was the thing.  I slopped a load of water from my nighty-night-bedtime glass and boiled it for the cafetiere.   I was able to go out and face the world, adrenal glands a-glow.

Our whole city is of course built around the water.  The river is the one piece of the city most Londoners regret not taking advantage of, and not spending enough time with.  Perhaps that’s a leftover from the days when the Thames was a friend in trade but an enemy when it came to the gut; many Londoners were raised on weak ale as the water was far too deadly to drink.  They did skate on it during occasional “Frost Fairs” in the seventeenth century, which seems like utter stupidity to me, but that’s the early Georgians for you.  The development of further bridges through the late 18th and beginning of the 19th century “broke up” the river slightly, making it less likely to freeze over.  I shouldn’t think anyone wanted to drink that water after it melted.  Cholera was so rampant and dastardly and progressed so swiftly once it attacked that it was known as King Cholera in the early and mid 19th century.  It arrived from Asia at some stage in 1831 and didn’t let up for nearly thirty years.  There were epidemics in every decade from 1820 to 1860, and the source of it was not successfully worked out until John Snow, assessing an outbreak of cholera in Broad Street Soho (now Broadwick Street) in 1854,  traced the outbreak to a street water pump. By the end of this particular outbreak, made possible by the fact that Soho wasn’t included in the beginnings of London’s sewer system and that certain people lived with “night soils” underneath their floorboards, 616 people had died.   Basically, it’s to do with poo poos getting into the drinking water; rampant diarrhea and vomiting herald dehydration and, more often than not, death within 72 hours.

And who would have wanted to partake of a refreshing glass of Thames Water extracted from the river during the “Great Stink” of 1858?  I remember it well!  It was a corker.  London was so rancid and smelly that parliament couldn’t sit, so there were some advantages.   However, in the short period in which they did sit, no doubt, holding perfumed handkerchief to public school noses and dry retching in the face of The Stink, they shoved through a  bill in 18 days that was to construct a massive sewer system for London and an Embankment (The Victoria Embankment, constructed 1864)  to stave off the stench of the river.  Fast forward a century, and with London drinking water the safest it’s ever been, it seems odd that the country then got obsessed with drinking water out of plastic bottles that, they now tell us, breed carcinogens if left in a hot car, in a hot dog, or under a warm dinner lady’s bottom.    The Thames Water Ring Main does supply massive amounts of us within the Thames area with our drinking water (or not, if you live in our house).  London needs 2.6 thousand millions of litres a day.  Most of the Thames Water Ring Main has its activity in Teddington Weir and from there is piped out through various sub pipes throughout the city (BUT MISSING OUR HOUSE).  Obviously, it’s built in London Clay, which is a fabulously brilliant tunneling fabric because it’s impermeable.   I did try to Google “Thames Water” to research this river further, but just got directed to a website that asked me whether I wanted to “pay a bill or was I moving?”  and it turns out that that website, was in fact Thames Water, the supplier. 

So, my first email was largely composed in swearwords and badinage and asked when my ****ing water was going to be ****ing well back on and if, after all these ****ing years, they couldn’t pull their fingers out of their watery ****ing ***holes and make it possible for me to have a ***ing bath.  Oddly, no reply.  But I was able to play a game called Waterwisely.

Waterwisely lets you move in an interactive town and go through your daily routine monitoring your water intake.  Apparently, when I got into the bathroom area, I should pledge to be in and out of the shower in 4 minutes in order to wash responsibly.  I should also put a bag of crystals down my loo to initiate responsible flushing.   Apparently if I turn the tap off when brushing my teeth I will save an astonishing 12 litres a day.  Of course, in my house that’s a hypothetical scenario because I HAVE NO WATER, but you get the drift.  Then there was a section of the cartoon about saving water at the Health Club (don’t go there.  Ever.  So water saved!) and Car Wash (don’t wash the car.  Saved!).  Also, I could collect rainwater in my garden (I don’t have one) to water my plants ( they are already dead) so lots of water saved there.   Want to save 17 litres a day doing the washing up.  Don’t do it.  Get your husband to do it.  There you go – water saved!  Apparently, in the water stakes, dishwashers are toxic.  I mean, they are really really bad news.  They’re the water equivalent of leaving the garden hose on all night. 

Of course, yesterday I went around turning the taps on and then cursing when nothing came out of them but a tragic, semi-whistling, stream of air.  This meant that last night the house was suddenly filled with the burp and fart of pipes and tubes and there was water, water, everywhere, vomiting out of various rooms.  I’m glad it was back on, as I was dreading the return of the “stand up wash” – you know, the one you do standing bolt upright naked at your bathroom sink with lonely, pathetic flannel  and which makes you feel like you are at boarding school or a prisoner – but ultimately the absence of running water made the heart grow fonder.  How wonderfully lucky we all are, to turn on a tap and have clean cold water rippling out through it.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.