Friday 29 June 2012

London loves, part four

Could you ever give up the trappings of modern life and live in a cabin in the woods?  To be completely honest, I don’t think I could (well, not for long) - but there are certainly times when the idea of it seems very appealing.  I’d miss my home comforts and I’m not sure I’d cope too well with the more hostile aspects of the British climate.  But I could probably manage it in the long bright days and comfortable nights of a balmy Summer, my entertainment provided by drawing, wildlife watching and daily field studies of flora and fauna, isolated from an overcrowded, angry world and liberated from the oppressive worries of contemporary existence.

Anyway, what started me along this train of thought was the latest episode of ‘The Secret History Of Our Streets’ , the BBC2 series I wrote about in a previous post - and again I found it moving and fascinating.  As with all the previous programmes, the characters chosen to talk about their experiences of each street were from a variety of backgrounds but they all shared a great ability to engage with the viewer, and to tell their stories with natural flair.  Wednesday’s ‘Secret History…’ focused on Portland Street, Notting Hill.   While spotlighting different locations, the same themes have recurred throughout every programme so far: the concept of slum clearance, the awful treatment of poorer tenants, the changing characters and/or loss of existing communities, a national obsession with property ownership, and the class divide.   The story of Portland Street encompasses all these things particularly strongly, with its multi-million pound Georgian houses owned by bankers at one end, and its tired-looking council flats and ASBO reputation at the other.  Yet again I found a lot of things about it jaw-dropping, tear-jerking, uplifting and appalling in fairly equal measure.

Perhaps the most heart-warming and surprising revelation came at the very end, and was not about Portland Street itself, but about one of its former residents, Henry Mayhew.  I’d love to find out more about him.  From the programme I learned that he was from an extremely wealthy family, he’d been the owner of one of those multi-million pound houses, and he’d been in finance himself.  However, the more he said, the more my preconceptions of him were eroded.  He spoke with poignancy about the lifelessness of the “posh end” of the street, the grey-faced men with sloping shoulders who lived in the obscenely priced properties, but spent no real time there.  He called it a "dormitory town for the money factory". His acknowledgement of the class divisions and the different types of people who lived at opposite ends came across as reluctantly acceptant and tinged with a shrugging sadness.  He spoke of the way that ordinary taxpayers’ money went into bankers' houses, not the small businesses we thought (?) our financial institutions were investing in (no surprise there, then…) and that many new owners in Notting Hill were wealthy Europeans who simply chose London because it was a tax haven.   His attitude was not so different from that of John, another interviewee, who was by contrast a working class man born in an old house on Portland Street when it was a slum, and had been moved into the council flats.  John bemoaned the fact that the area had changed beyond recognition, “Where d’you go to get a paper or a packet of fags?” he asked, “You can’t even get a pint of milk.”  The old dairy located on the street in his youth is now an exclusive art dealership.  Their experiences were different but Henry and John were both disillusioned.  John now lives in a mobile home in Cornwall, and seems very happy to be there.  And Henry?  Well, Henry moved out of Portland Street too.   In the final scenes of the programme he was chopping wood and behind him was one of those building site cabins.  With a little bit of work to the inside, it was going to be his new home.  A cabin in the woods.  We last saw Henry outside in the clearing, pouring water from a bucket to wash his naked body.  He’s happier now.  Call me daft if you like, but my eyes pricked. 

Friday 22 June 2012

Watch that man

So it’s ‘Bowie Night’ on BBC4 this evening.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who doesn’t like at least some Bowie.  My first proper awareness of him was when my sister bought ‘Aladdin Sane’ in 1973.  She played it a lot and even my mum liked it.  I was only ten and soon became familiar with every song, every note and vocal inflection, in that way that you do as a child without even realising it.  It’s quite possible I may have been heard singing ‘Cracked Actor’, for instance, on the way to the sweet shop to buy my sherbet pips.  It was no doubt also the first time I heard (but didn’t understand) the words wanking, quaaludes and incestuous, when Bowie crossed more boundaries in the unsettling theatrical darkness of ‘Time’.   (It would be a few years before I assaulted my family’s eardrums with ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ and the explicit lyrics of ‘Bodies’ – but, of course, by then they were unshockable.)

I studied that iconic album cover so many times, wondering about the unreal paleness of his skin and the pool of mercurial-looking substance in the cavity behind his left clavicle.  It was only later that I explored his full back-catalogue and added several Bowie albums to my own collection, but 'Aladdin Sane' has always felt like my personal introduction to the man.

In my mid-teens my parents were splitting up and my mum went through another one of her deep bouts of clinical depression.  There are, naturally, many memories associated with all of that which I won’t go into here but, weirdly, one of them is 'Aladdin Sane'.  My mum started to listen to music a lot during that phase and for some reason she favoured that album.  I often heard her playing it late at night, and I admit it was a little disturbing. But there must have been something about it, something that touched her within its varying moods or the way that Bowie expresses his lyrics with a strange mixture of menace and relish – I think it’s both upbeat and downbeat in equal measure.  It was quite an insane time and the irony of that album title is not lost on me, but it’s still a record I love – along with a good deal of his other output. 

I’m looking forward to tonight’s programmes.

Sunday 17 June 2012

...Rummaging through drawers and drawings

My first experience of life drawing was when I was 16, at college.  It was a little shocking to see a middle-aged woman of quite ample (if no longer very firm) proportions slip out of her dressing gown and stand there naked and unabashed while the class of teenage art students, all of whom were more embarrassed than she'd ever been, studied every fold and crease and undulating bit of her flesh.  She was very experienced, never moving a muscle, and told us later that while we were looking at her she was actually also looking at us and could see our 'auras'.  Some shone very brightly, she said, but she never told us whose.  She didn't even flinch when one of the tutors, in an attempt to focus our minds on our model as an 'object', placed an upside-down cardboard box over her head.  Maybe it helped to stop our auras from dazzling her while she posed.

I remembered that yesterday while going through a folder of life drawings that are a few years old now, and wondering if anything would inspire me again.  It's been ages since I've done any but, as anyone who's ever tried it knows, it's such good discipline to draw in a class environment with a real model.  Very few of the pieces I looked back through work as a whole; perspectives and proportions are wrong and my lines or textures are dull, but scanning and cropping them to keep the bits I like most seems to give them a slightly different feel and new lease of life.  I hope the models won't mind the amputations and decapitations I've given them here.  At least there are no cardboard boxes on heads, anyway...


Thursday 14 June 2012

The damn hoover

ABTD is an oft-used acronym in this household for Ah Bollocks, That’ll Do.  Abbreviating it in that way is not for any coy censorship reason but because it saves two syllables, and when you’ve already reached the Ah Bollocks, That’ll Do stage, every millisecond of unnecessary effort you can save counts.  So, having finally decided which new vacuum cleaner to buy out of the twenty thousand I had spent the last three hours scrolling through on my PC screen, I had an ABTD moment.  I felt beaten into submission and added it to my basket.

Life seems to have gone a bit pear-shaped here lately.  I know things could be worse - but there seem to be more aggravations causing us worry and needing money spending on than usual (at the same time that there is less coming in, so it feels amplified).  When the vacuum cleaner packed up it just seemed to be yet one more thing in a long line of problems.  And I hate having to make decisions on new purchases, especially ones that I really don’t want to have to spend out on in the first place, like household appliances; I have a Quentin Crisp attitude to dust and would rather not have to clean at all. At least now we're spared the type of death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts torture of traipsing around soulless retail park shops on wet afternoons, trying to narrow down the choice whilst well-meaning young men with gelled hair and nylon shirts, tanked up on the promise of commission, await the moment of visible weakening to go in for the sales kill.   I’m grateful that now we can 'pop along' to Amazon, for example, to peruse the items from the comfort of the living room.

Well-meaning young salesmen?

But it still does get a bit much.  There’s too much choice.  We just need (as opposed to want) a simple vacuum cleaner.  I think I’ve found “The One” and then I make the fateful error of looking through the customer reviews which only muddy the water.  One customer says "the lead isn’t long enough", but who knows if she’s neglected to mention that she lives in a sixteen-bedroom country pile?  Mr E from Peterlee raves about it and then confesses that he’s never used it himself as  "it was a birthday present for the Missis".   I wonder what Mrs E got for Christmas.

Reviews can be revealing, though.  I was recently sent a link to a product for sale on Amazon, just for the, ahem, entertainment provided by the customer 'reviews'.  If you're curious then scroll down to the handy write-ups at the bottom (no pun intended) of the following link and: see for yourself - although maybe don't go there if you are squeamish, or easily offended…

I should also add that the wince versus rolling-on-the-floor-laughing ratio of your reaction to them may depend on your gender, and your general hirsuteness / attitude to depilation.

Anyway, the chosen vacuum cleaner arrived the other day.  It’s just the usual fairly flimsily made plastic job but it sucks up dust.  ABTD. 

I had to laugh at this somewhat over-the-top warning that came with it, though.  Sounds almost as dangerous as Veet For Men. 

Thursday 7 June 2012

London loves, part three

I was completely and unexpectedly captivated last night by the first in a new BBC2 series, ‘The Secret History Of Our Streets’

It presented some quite touching personal stories of the inevitable way that a community changed in the early 1960s when a new breed of idealistic town planners were inspired by the concept of rebuilding our capital city ‘as a machine’.  According to location and associated affluence (or lack of it), big changes to London's urban landscape were proposed.  Compulsory purchase orders were issued on many houses and entire streets of Victorian terraces declared as slums, leading to their demolition and the relocation of residents to modern estates and new towns.  For some this may have been a very good thing, but for others it clearly wasn’t.  Whatever your political views and opinions, or perhaps personal experiences of such situations, there is no doubt that such extensive measures had a massive impact on close-knit communities, where many families had lived and worked together for generations and then found themselves split up and moved into different areas. 

Archive footage showed young and no doubt ambition-driven representatives from the council being sent to inspect houses and report back on the state of them.  I can’t imagine how humiliating, imposing and surely intimidating that must have been for most residents – to have a judgement cast on the condition of your home by an officious stranger who didn’t live in the area, and for that judgement to have such a potentially irreversible effect on your future.

I expect that, for several families, the opportunity to move out of damp, cramped and insanitary homes into brand new apartments was very welcome, but it seems it wasn’t always the case. The kick in the teeth for some one-time residents of Reginald Road in Deptford, who were surprised when their homes were considered to be slums, is that fifty years later original papers have been unearthed in which the houses were noted as being perfectly fit for human habitation and that any remedial work could have been easily and cheaply done.   But, at the time, these reports and recommendations were ignored.  It was a poignant revelation and a reminder that, in the face of an authority that has already decided its intentions, the ordinary man in the street barely stands a chance.

My parents were born and brought up in East London and were children at the time of World War II, experiencing the trauma of being evacuated during the Blitz and then returning to streets damaged by bombs. I have difficulty relating to how life must have seemed for them - and particularly for my grandparents - with such destruction going on around, so close.  Perhaps, even if only to a very small degree, it was those thoughts that  resonated as I watched last night's programme, particularly the scenes in which the bulldozers turned family homes on Reginald Road into dusty piles of rubble (even when some occupants still refused to leave) - and I felt quite moved by it all.

Anyway, it was a very promising start to the series and I’ll be watching the remaining five episodes with great interest.

Well, it's just such a good song....

Sunday 3 June 2012

The first party you ever had...?

As part of my ongoing series of Firsts let me take you back to the Summer of ‘77.  I can assure you this has nothing to do with the J-word which is currently dominating the holiday weekend here in the UK.  The only J-word connected to the Summer of ’77 event I’m about to describe is the name of my first boyfriend.

I say ‘boyfriend’, but it was really a na├»vely uncomfortable and fragmented relationship (I use the word ‘relationship’ loosely) and I didn’t realise at the time that there were about nine other girls in my town who simultaneously believed he was their boyfriend.  That was the kind of boy he was.  Anyway, don’t worry, there are no ‘firsts’ to do with him directly that I’m about to reveal here.  However, his presence that Summer was significant when I decided to celebrate my fourteenth birthday with my first proper party.

It really should have been fine.  My parents insisted on being in the house but said they’d stay upstairs, out of sight.  We were allowed to have a few cans of shandy, which felt terribly daring but, with all the Coke we’d be washing them down with, seemed unlikely to get any of us swaying and slurring our words.

Plates of Cheesy Wotsits and KP WigWams were arranged on the table and a collection of singles stacked up by the stereogram. The turntable had one of those auto-changer things where you could pile them up and they’d drop down one by one – perfect – and I was very excited about the varied selection of 45s that my friends and I had pooled together for the big night.

We rolled up the rugs so that the parquet flooring was exposed, ready for the easy mopping-up of inevitable spillages and some non-slip dancing.  By 7pm my female friends had arrived, smelling sweetly of Charlie perfume, made-up in powder blue eye-shadow and lip-gloss.  Then the much-anticipated male contingent turned up: my boyfriend J, who I was keen to impress, and a small group of his mates whom I’d asked him to invite.  My pal Helen was quite interested in tall, curly-haired Nigel, and their shyly exchanged glances across the mustard-painted living room gave promise of an exciting liaison later on.  “When are you going to play some slow ones?” she asked as I rifled through the singles, placing the Alessi Brothers ‘Oh Lori’and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sir Duke’onto the long spindle.   She looked longingly at my sister’s copy of ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ by Rod Stewart.

It was a beautiful, warm July evening, and it could all have gone so well, only I hadn’t banked on J telling a whole load of other people that there would be free drink, food, music and girls that night at Holloway Close.  I must have been busy topping up the bowl of salt and vinegar Twists when somebody let them in.  One big, older lad already seemed to have a bit of a sway and a slur and an air of arrogance about him.  His name was Rob.  But J said he was OK.  And anything that J said was OK must be OK.  He was my boyfriend, after all.

By dusk the party was in full swing but things had already started to go awry.  Helen had disappeared and was found upstairs crying because Nigel had declined her approaches. This tragic rejection resulted in her downing two cans of shandy, then falling against the edge of the toilet and laddering her Pretty Polly tights, before fleeing into the bathroom to sob inconsolably.  It was so bad she couldn’t even be persuaded to come down and dance to the bouncing beat of Joe Tex’s ‘Ain’t Gonna Bump No More With No Big Fat Woman’.  (I later discovered, of course, that no party is complete without a girl ending up in tears before 10pm.)

I’d rather hoped to get some serious kissing practice in with J but he was barely talking to me.  Every time I looked for him he was in the midst of the uninvited boys, including Rob, who were gathering in the dining room acting rather furtively.  I consoled myself with DJ-ing duties and found to my excitement that one of the lads had at least brought along some good records.  On went the Jam ‘In The City’ album; I’d never heard it before. ‘Art School’…’I’ve Changed My Address’… it was all sounding good. 

But then the shouting started. 


I looked out the window and there was Rob now in the back garden, flailing his arms and kicking the wooden edges of the guinea-pig run. There was something in his right hand – a bottle.  A whisky bottle.  It was nearly empty.

The guinea pigs started to squeak, anxiously.  The neighbour’s head appeared from over the other side of the fence – I think he might even have shaken a fist. Rob continued to shout and swear and swig from the bottle.  “YOU’RE ALL FUCKING ARSEHOLES! PISS OFF!”  My friends and I edged nervously towards the back door as the Jam’s ‘Time For Truth’ started to play, Paul Weller’s voice drifting across the lawn…

…’you’re just another red balloon with a lot of hot gas
Why don’t you fuck off?
And you think you’ve got it worked out
And you think you’ve got it made
And you’re trying to play the hero
But you never walk home in the dark
I think it’s time for truth…’

 And then my Mum appeared.  She walked out into the garden and stood right in front of this drunk, swaggering sixteen-year-old boy, her hands on her hips. Time for truth indeed.

I later found out that far more dodgy things go on at parties of course, but at the tender age of fourteen this one couldn’t have been much more cringe-worthy.  A boy who I didn’t even know was swearing at my Mum who had discovered that he’d found the family whisky hidden away in the dining room and had drunk most of it.  Under the beady eye of the neighbour and my embarrassed schoolfriends, she kicked Rob out and closed the party down.  Lights went on, music went off.  And then J chucked me.  I think I might have cried.  Just a little.

The only good thing to come out of it was that J forgot to take his copy of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ with him.  I kept it for several weeks before reluctantly handing it back, having taped both sides and decided that I’d never liked him that much anyway.

In case you’re wondering, the guinea-pigs were fine.  I never had another party, though. Oh and I’ve just realised that my mum was the same age then as I am now.  Perhaps that’s an even cringier thought.

With thanks to the person who inspired this post. You know who you are!

Friday 1 June 2012

Springwatching: Sweet Thing reprise

This is what I looked out of the window to see (and hear) this morning.  Unfortunately I think this little fellow left the nestbox (as mentioned in yesterday's post) a tad too early, as his siblings are still inside.  I don't hold out too much hope for him but I was able to quietly and gently get close enough for this photo.  It's one of those difficult dilemmas - not wanting to interfere with the natural way of things but finding it hard not to feel slightly responsible for his welfare because I can see him out there looking rather vulnerable (as he can't fly yet).  In this case I think I just have to trust things to fate - at least the parent bluetits are around and I'm doing my very best to keep out the neighbour's cats.  Fingers crossed. 

(...If you like bluetits you might also be interested in this:
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