Category Archives: Fashion and trends

Out with the old

Continuing with the festive theme started last entry (and why not?), I think I’d like to talk a little about New Year. Here in London, the New Year tradition is very simple. Go out and get absolutely hammered. If you want to really push the boat out, join the revellers in Trafalgar Square or by the river so you can hear the chimes of Big Ben as they sound. The New Year is obviously a significant day in the calendar, what with it being at the start and all. But I have to say that our tradition is lacking a little compared to those of other countries and even those of other parts of Britain.

First of all, it should be pointed out that the tradition of holding New Year on 1st January is actually not that universal. You’ve no doubt heard of Chinese New Year and are aware that it falls between January 21st and February 21st, depending when the new moon of the first lunar month falls. Well, there’s also the Tamil New Year, the Nepalese New Year, the Balinese New Year, the Islamic New Year, the Eastern Orthodox New Year and so many others that I can’t really be bothered to list them all. Suffice it to say that not everyone goes by the Gregorian calendar. Even in Britain, the New Year was only regarded as starting on 1st January from 1751 onwards. Before that, 25th March was the preferred date.

So anyway, how about the celebrations themselves? Well, we have the fireworks, of course, which are nice. And we have the New Year’s Day parade, which is also nice.

New Year festivities in Rural Scotland (NOTE TO SELF: Check this before pressing "publish.")

If you’re a bit further north, though, you might get something a bit more imaginative and a bit pagan. One tradition in Scotland and the North of England is that of burning out the Old Year. Grampian in particular has some rather interesting traditional customs. In Stonehaven, for instance, there’s a festival known as “Swinging the Fireballs,” where people, um, swing fireballs around and people let off shotguns to let the Old Year know it’s time to leave. However, there’s also the requisite eating and drinking, so it’s all good. In Burghead, there’s the more obscurely-named “Burning the Clavie,” in which a barrel of tar (the Clavie) is set alight, carried around the town and then fixed to a stone altar. The charred remains are considered to keep evil spirits at bay and thus are used as good luck charms. Allendale and Northumberland see similar festivities. Perhaps even the modern-day fireworks owe their origins to such customs as these.

Good fortune is a common theme of New Year celebrations – this may be traced back to the ancient belief that spirits lurked in the dark (and I’m not just talking about the whisky). If you don’t fancy a bit of a blaze, a lot of noise is considered an equally acceptable way to banish evil. A peal of bells from the church is one way of doing things. Another, if you’re a member of  the Berchtesgaden Christmas Shooters (Weinachtschützen des Berchtesgadener Landes) in Germany is to let off a volley of gunfire to symbolically shoot the Old Year. Similar symbolic shootings are held in Philadelphia and were once held in Angus.

After all that noise and merriment, assuming your hangover allows such things, feasting is traditional. The idea of a feast to mark the New Year dates back to the Romans (there’s that pre-Christian thing again). In Greece, a cake is served containing a coin, the finder of which will supposedly have good luck throughout the year, presumably unless  they break a tooth on it. That would be lame. Again in Germany, the eating of doughnuts is a New Year custom, along with lucky marzipan pigs. On the subject of pastry, Parisian bakers traditionally used to bake elaborate shaped pastries to mark the start of the year.

If you want to work all that off, as well as cut through your hangover, you may wish to return to London for one final New Year tradition. Brave or possibly insane souls in the Serpentine Swimming Club, Hyde Park like to go for an early morning dip in the lake. Talk about breaking the ice!!!! No, but seriously, they often do have to literally break the ice.

Anyway, Happy New Year, chums, and all the best for 2012. Show those Mayans who’s boss.

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Filed under Booze, Current events, Fashion and trends, Food, History, Only loosely about London

The name’s Bond

This weekend found me back West at the parents’ place for a specific task. The Da has been streamlining his car collection, and my assistance was required to move one of them. The vehicle being disposed of was a Bond Minicar.

Now, you say “a Bond” in a car context, people automatically assume you mean an Aston Martin. A Bond Minicar is actually pretty much the opposite of an Aston Martin. It looks like what you’d get if you didn’t bother to get your Reliant Robin neutered and it mounted a Ford Anglia.

The vehicle on the left is a Bond Minicar. Not the Da’s one, but very similar. As you can see, it’s tiny. The chap who took the Da’s one described them as “the original Mini.” Actually, they’re smaller than that. We were able to fit it into the back of a Transit van for its trip to its new home. Four of us were able to physically pick it up with ease. Picking a car up is the manliest thing I’ve done since that time I ate a steak while smoking a cigar and wearing a Stetson.

To understand the appeal of the Minicar, you need to know a little about the history of motoring in Britain. In 1949, when the first Bonds were built, car ownership in Britain was nothing like as widespread as it is now – cars were simply not affordable for most families. Often, the family runabout, if you had one, would be a motorbike and sidecar (Dad driving, Mum riding pillion, two kids crammed in the sidecar, God hopefully on your side).

Enter Lawrie Bond, an engineer who had made military components during the Second World War. He aimed to produce a small, economical car for the average family, and the Minicar was the result. Period advertisements show a family of four happily chuntering along in their spacious automobile, which suggests that either people were about half the size back then or the publicity department was being economical with the truth. In reality, the Minicar was a very basic vehicle. It used a Villiers motorbike engine with no reverse gear which was actually mounted on the single front wheel. Due to the car’s tiny turning circle, however, the lack of a reverse gear wasn’t a huge issue. The Deluxe version had electric windscreen wipers (believe me, chums, you haven’t lived until you’ve tried to clear a windscreen in the driving rain with a manual windscreen wiper).

This basic nature was the main attraction of the vehicle. You see, with its tiny engine and its three wheels, it wasn’t technically a car. Technically, it was a motorbike. You only needed a motorcycle licence to drive one and, crucially, you only had to pay a motorcycle’s road tax, purchase tax and insurance. For all I joke about them, you can see the appeal of such a car to the motorbike-and-sidecar families.

The Da’s is a Mark G, which was first manufactured in 1961. This included such luxuries as opening windows and door locks. The Da’s is notable for the fact that it was the first one with an opening boot (which raises the question of whether early Mark Gs had boots you couldn’t get into) and is thus An Historic Vehicle. Unfortunately, in 1962 a crippling blow was dealt to Bond when the government reduced the tax on four-wheeled cars. Thus, immediately, much of the appeal of the Minicar was gone, and people started to favour cars that might actually get you laid.

Bond produced a follow-up, the 875, which (worryingly) could do up to 100mph. Bond Cars Ltd. was bought up in 1970 by Reliant, whose name is legendary (notorious?) in British motoring circles for the three-wheeled Robin and Regal (best known as Del Boy’s van from Only Fools and Horses) models. However, the Bond name lived on in the form of the utterly bizarre Bond Bug, seen above. This was essentially a sports version of a Reliant Robin, and one can’t help wondering if there was one guy at Reliant who was a bit embarrassed that they’d taken his joke suggestion seriously.

These days, all these three-wheelers – the Minicar, the Robin, the Regal, the 875, the Bug – have a cult following. Perhaps because they’re so unusual, perhaps because they represent a niche market, perhaps because they appeal to the British sense of the ridiculous. If any car personifies the “lovable loser,” it’s the three-wheeler.

"You plonker, 3PO."

One final note. The chap who designed the Bug, Tom Karen, would go on to design the Landspeeder from Star Wars. This means that technically, the Bond Minicar is the ancestor of the Landspeeder. Next time George Lucas decides to tinker with the original films, do you think he could be persuaded to put Luke Skywalker in a Minicar? That would be so awesome.

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I get a roundel

Now here’s a London icon for ya.

This is the old London Underground roundel. If you’ve spent any time at all in the city, you’ve come across it. Hell, these days it’s practically a symbol of the city itself.

It’s one of those designs that’s just so simple and effective that you find yourself thinking, “Golly gee, anyone could have come up with that.” I mean, red circle, blue bar, the word “UNDERGROUND,” hardly rocket science amirite?

Actually, it’s been a long evolutionary process to get this far. The roundel, or “bullseye” or “target” as it used to be known (maybe these earlier titles are seen as too confrontational in the modern age?) is believed to date back ultimately to the 19th century. The London General Omnibus Company’s logo consisted of a spoked wheel with a crossbar (see above right).

In those days, simplicity doesn’t appear to have been a thing that corporate image-makers did, and for a long time the Underground railways (not that London Underground existed as a unified concept back then) went for more elaborate symbols. The one on the left, for instance, was used in 1908 by London Underground Electric Railways, the direct ancestor of the modern Underground system. You can see elements of the roundel concept in this, but it lacks a certain “oomph” to my mind.

The true London Underground roundel appeared that very same year as a handy and eyecatching means of identifying stations belonging to London Underground Electric Railways (or “The Combine,” as it was nicknamed). The original roundels consisted of a red circle with a blue bar across it, and you can still see these at a few locations – Ealing Broadway springs to mind. As stations featured colourful advertising and complex tiling schemes (to enable illiterate travellers to identify their destination), the sign had to stand out.

The next big development for the roundel took place a few years later, in 1917. This was during the reign of Frank Pick as the Combine’s Publicity Manager. Pick, as I’ve mentioned in other entries, basically set the design standards that London Underground follows to this day. Part of this was the introduction of the Johnston typeface in which all Underground-produced written material is written. Edward Johnston, who devised the typeface (duh) also redesigned the roundel to work with his new alphabet.

This roundel was in use during the Underground’s greatest period of expansion, and consequently architect Charles Holden used it extensively in his station designs. He even came up with a rather natty 3D version, as well as a stained glass variant.

Meanwhile, in the 1930s, more changes were afoot. In 1933, all of London’s Underground lines, together with all of its bus companies, tramlines and coach services, were united under the London Passenger Transport Board – better known to you and me as London Transport. Variants of the Roundel were introduced across the board to emphasise the unity of the transport network.

In 1947, the roundel was reworked again. Following the Second World War, the prevailing design aesthetic was far simpler – partly due to Austerity period economy measures. To this end, Harold Hutchison (then Publicity Manager) eliminated the dashes above and below the word “UNDERGROUND.” This is basically the version still in use to this day.

In recent years, the scope of its use has expanded even further, with variants being devised for the DLR, Overground, riverboats, Dial-a-Ride and even streets.

In fact, its (unauthorised) use has spread yet further afield. On the left you can see it in use on the Darjeeling Himalaya Railway, which is a narrow gauge steam railway in India (not yet covered by Oyster). It even crops up in fiction – the subway in the film Dark City uses it, and in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, the dwarfish rune for a mine is… a circle with a line across it.

You can dis the Tube all you like (I know I do), but there’s one thing you can’t deny – when they come up with a good design, they really come up with a good design.

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To Be A Pirate King

After the signing on Saturday, Izzi and I rushed off to complete my pirate costume. Pirate costume? Perhaps I should explain.

You see, on Wednesday, my good chum Tiny Emma, who is well versed in the ways of debauchery, invited me along to an event held by an organisation known as Corset and Diamonds. This, I was told, was a burlesque-and-electro-swing evening themed around Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a film that I understand enjoyed a certain amount of success a few years ago.

Unfortunately, I’m currently rehearsing for a play that is on next week (you should come and see it, it’s going to be awesome) and so the amount of time available to produce a suitable outfit was somewhat limited. So, a certain amount of improvisation was needed. I decided a little research was in order.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that most of what we think of as “piratical” is more-or-less BS, invented by fiction writers, based on misunderstandings and half-truths, reinforced by years of retelling. For -instance, you know the old pirate voice, the “ha-harrr, Jim lad, splice the mainsail, keelhaul the mizzen-mast, belike and by thunder!” accent? That dates all the way back to 1950, derived from Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver in Disney’s version of Treasure Island. Now, there was some truth in his performance – he was a Cornishman by birth and based the accent on the sailors he used to see. But the near-universal Mummerset growl of Hollywood movies was nowhere near as prevalent as you might think. Particularly given that so many pirates were, you know, not English.

And you know the Jolly Roger, the black flag with the skull-and-crossbones? Again, nowhere near as common as the movies would have you believe. More common was the plain black flag, or the plain red flag. They both indicated that this ship was not part of any navy and therefore not obliged to follow any niceties of international law, and if you’d like to surrender now then I’m sure you’ll save us all a lot of bother. Most common of all, however, was to simply fly the colours of whatever country you were pretending to be from until the other ship was too near to run. This would arouse less suspicion than having, you know, a flag that basically says “HELLO WE ARE PIRATES” from a distance. Of course, for the pirate with a sense of style, an off-the-peg skull-and-crossbones wouldn’t do, and many prominent buccaneers went with a custom design. I rather like Blackbeard’s one, pictured below. By the way, the red flag was also commonly known as the “jolie rouge,” from which we get the term “Jolly Roger.” So there you have it.

But what about clothes? Your basic pirate costume seems to come in two forms. You’ve either got the foppish Captain Hook-style outfit, very elaborate, lots of brass buttons, or you’ve got the raggedy seadog look.

The reality, in fact, lay somewhere between the two extremes. Pirates did indeed like to dress up, they were basically the pimps of the sea in sartorial terms. But commonly, the elaborate clothes they were able to get were stolen. So you might get a seadog acting the foppish macaroni in the coat several sizes too large, tottering along in shoes a size too small.

However, your average sailor was also pretty handy with a needle and thread – they had to be, with sail repairs to be made. So they could rustle up their own clothes if needs be. And if a recent haul included silk, lace or other fancy cloth, those clothes could be extremely… do people still say “bling?” Am I using that word correctly?

So the conclusions I drew:

1. There is a lot of freedom, the only limits on an authentic costume being period accuracy.

2. The party is tomorrow and I don’t have much money, throw something together.

So, what I went with:

Shirt: They all laughed at me when I bought a frilly white shirt at the Stables in Camden, but WHO’S LAUGHING NOW? It came from that basement stall run by that rather theatrical-looking woman.

Trousers: I don’t own any breeches, sadly. There is a shop in Camden that has a lot of theatrical costume, including several pairs of breeches, but these were around the £35-40 mark, which was a bit much for me. However, in the Paws charity shop in Tooting I found a pair of black trousers. I hacked the legs off below the knee to create a raggedy look that might, if you didn’t look too closely, pass for breeches.

Waistcoat: I have a rather elaborate and shiny red waistcoat with brass and mother-of-pearl buttons. The style is a bit too modern for the Golden Age of Piracy, but with it worn open this wasn’t too noticeable. Just the sort of thing a dandy sailing lad might steal from a fat unarmed merchantman.

Footwear: If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from years of amateur dramatics, it’s that if you wear a pair of breeches and a pair of long socks, nobody can tell you’re not wearing stockings. Shoe-wise, I just wore my trusty black Oxford brogues. Ideally I’d have liked a buckle, but I didn’t have any.

Headgear: At Izzi’s suggestion, I picked up a black bandanna from a stall in Oxford Street. I also managed to get a brown tricorn at So High Soho on Berwick Street which looked a lot more elaborate than its price tag would suggest. The shop was closing for the day, but they let me dash in, which was cool of them. Incidentally, do you have any idea how hard it is to get a decent pirate hat that is both affordable and doesn’t look crap? Very hard.

Accessorising:  Primark really came through here. I found a cheapo pendant for £1.50 in the Tooting branch along with a battered-looking brown belt which was free because the guy on the till forgot to ring it through har har. I also added a couple of pocket watches and two more pendants to give the whole ensemble that more-plunder-than-sense look. The finishing touch was a sword from Escapade in Camden.

I met up with Anna K and we made our way to the party. I think the outfit was pretty successful, it was reacted to favourably at the event. It also seemed to make the hobo outside Colliers Wood Tube Station quite angry, but I don’t speak derelict so I couldn’t tell you why. On the way back I had a number of drunks shouting “Captain Jack Sparrow!” which would be quite witty, only I actually was deliberately dressed as a pirate, so not really.

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New York, Paris, Colliers Wood

I’d be the first to admit that, as guys go, I have baggage. That’s probably because the baggage I have takes the form of a stupendously awesome suitcase. Witness.

I picked it up today in Camden. I’ve wanted a suitcase like this for ages – a proper old-fashioned, battered leather thing with faded travel stickers. I do have a tin trunk from when my grandparents, ma and uncles moved to Britain from Kenya, but it’s needed to hold my grandpa’s judge wig (long story) and in any case is far too heavy and awkwardly-shaped for everyday use. Cases matching that description tend to go for big bucks, so when I saw this one for £15, I snapped it up in accordance with my “jetset lifestyle, Ryanair budget” mode of living.

I love the paraphernalia of bygone travel, the days of named trains and ocean liners. These days, nobody cares about long-distance travel. People get on a plane to the other side of the world as if they’re not flying at 500 freakin’ miles per hour halfway around the planet, and I think that’s just sad. The days of savouring the journey are long gone. No doubt I’m looking at it all with rose-tinted spectacles, and back then people were sick of taking six weeks to get from Britain to Australia by boat, but… well. There’s just a part of me that wishes there was a bit more effort required to get to another continent, that’s all.

So, what voyages has this suitcase been on? Let’s take a closer look at some of the labels. Apparently it belonged to someone in Holland Park, so for me in Colliers Wood that’s already pretty exotic.

The sticker on the right is pretty self-explanatory. It indicates that the owner travelled on the overnight train that ran from Victoria in London to Gare du Nord in Paris. Named trains are all but extinct these days, mostly existing as a nostalgia thing where they haven’t been abandoned altogether, but the time was when there were dozens operating on British Railways, with names that ranged from the thrilling (the Red Dragon, the White Rose, the Silver Jubilee, the Royal Scot, the Cornish Riviera) to the downright peculiar (the Flying Scotsman, the Master Cutler). Don’t they just make you want to abandon the morning commute and leap on board?

The Night Ferry was not the only international service on BR, there was also the Golden Arrow (also to Paris) as well as a number that only went as far as the port. However, thanks to its specially-built coaches, the Night Ferry was the only train to physically get on the boat without passengers having to disembark. The service lasted until 1980, and would eventually be made entirely redundant by the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Yr. Humble Chronicler was actually at the opening of the Channel Tunnel, and once again it amazes me how un-amazed people were at the fact that there was a freakin’ tunnel to France. I mean, you could walk to Europe for the first time since the Ice Age! Is that not just incredible? I think I need to lie down.

Oh wait, no time for that, here’s the other label. Ah, now, this is interesting. It’s not very clear from this shot, but this case was taken from New York on the RMS Mauretania. If you’re not familiar with ocean liners, you probably know that name from the film Titanic, in which it is mentioned by Kate Winslet’s character. That was the first Mauretania, which was the biggest and fastest liner in the world when built. This one was technically the third ship of that name, the second being a steamer to the Isle of Wight given that name until the completion of the new liner. Apparently this unusual measure was to prevent a rival shipping line from stealing the name and therefore the reputation of the old ship from Cunard White Star.

The third Mauretania was launched in 1938. She briefly ran from London to New York, and in so doing became the largest ship ever to navigate the Thames. When war broke out, she was requisitioned as a troop ship and repainted a drab grey. During this period, she had several exciting adventures, including setting a speed record between Australia and South Africa, sailing right around the world and fleeing attacks by U-boats.

Her postwar career was, alas, not quite so spectacular. She worked the route from Southampton to New York without any particular hitches, but set no more records. It was during this period, in 1958, that my case took its trip in her hold. By the 1960s, however, she was looking distinctly old-fashioned and at the end of 1965 she was broken up.

Four years later, the Boeing 747 would take to the sky and at that stage, I think we can safely say that the era was at an end.

Still, you’ve got to admit it’s a cool suitcase.

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Thomas Willson and the Pyramid of Death

As I think I’ve mentioned before, one of the problems London faced as it expanded in the nineteenth century was the issue of where to bury the dead. There were just too many stiffs for the earth to hold. One churchyard in Holborn had a ground level twelve feet above that of the surrounding area, due to the sheer number of corpses crammed therein (and “crammed” really is the word). While the transmission of disease was not yet fully understood, people did have a dim awareness that corpse-goo was leaking into London’s wells, and this was almost certainly a Bad Thing from a hygiene perspective.

Obviously, there was only so much that could be done with the existing burial grounds. Cremation was out of the question, due to the Christian belief that the body had to be whole for the Day of Judgment (no heaven for you, amputees!). Christopher Wren had proposed the establishment of cemeteries outside of the city – one of a number of modernising improvements that were turned down by the Corporation of London following the Great Fire in 1666.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the attitude was starting to shift. After all, other countries had successfully built cemeteries on the outskirts of cities, and London really was getting very smelly. While most ideas proposed were along the lines of a sort of landscape garden – basically our modern idea of a cemetery – the architect Thomas Willson had a slightly more ambitious plan, which he put forward in 1829.

To understand the background to this, you need to know a bit about the fashion for Egyptiana that came about in the 1820s. It began in 1821, with an exhibition of Egyptiana by an archaeologist named Giovanni Battista Belzoni.

Belzoni was, in scholarly terms, a crap archaeologist. Even in the 19th century, many historians didn’t hold him in high regard. His methods of excavation consisted of going into a place, grabbing all the treasure he could and then buggering off. He was sort of the Indiana Jones of his day. Nevertheless, many of his treasures ended up in the British Museum.

His exhibition of Egyptian finds in Piccadilly created a sensation. This was the era when Gothic fiction was still very popular, and the macabre fascination with death among the Londoners of the time fitted in well with the burial culture of Ancient Egypt. As a result, a kind of Egypt-mania arose in the city.

So in a sense, it wasn’t at all surprising that Willson should suggest the construction of a pyramid to house the dead. The location he suggested was atop Primrose Hill, now a well-known beauty spot a short distance from Chalk Farm.

This would have been a truly spectacular landmark, had it actually been built. The base would have been the size of Russell Square and it would have been taller than St Paul’s Cathedral. There would have been 94 storeys and capacity to hold up to five million corpses. Steam-powered lifts would have been used to access the many, many catacombs therein, although construction would have been of suitably ancient-looking granite over a brick shell.

Such was Willson’s optimism that he formed a Pyramid General Cemetery Company in which people could invest. His profit projections were optimistic – the projected cost would have been £2,500 (which, in modern money and adjusting for inflation, is quite a lot) and the ultimate profit, he estimated, would be £10,764,000. Furthermore, he thought it would not only be a practical way of dealing with the problems of the big city, but he also saw it as a tourist attraction for the morbid folk of the time – more profit to the Company, one assumes.

Sadly (perhaps), the scheme didn’t go ahead. Perhaps it was too radical. Perhaps people got the wrong end of the stick when Willson asked them to invest in a “pyramid scheme.” In any case, the concept was turned down in favour of more conventional cemetery schemes. All was not lost for Willson, however, and he later found himself on the Board of Directors for the General Cemetery Company, which would construct the burial grounds at Kensal Green. 

Frankly, I don’t think I’d have liked such a monument. If you look at the photo above, you can see how high above the city Primrose Hill is, and I think a giant granite memento mori looming over the West End would be a little offputting. But then, I’m not a nineteenth century emo.

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Shirley Bassey ain’t singing about this one.

Yesterday I found myself in West London, White City to be precise, in the shadow of the Westway. It is, if I’m quite honest, not the most beautiful area of the city – the Westway itself has become synonymous with psychogeographical hostility, due to the way it cuts across West London like an infected wound.

That’s not what I’m here to talk about, though, although it’s not entirely unrelated, thematically speaking. From here, and indeed from many, many vantage points on this side of the city, there’s a landmark even more visible and only slightly prettier.

The rather rubbish photo to the right depicts it- the Trellick Tower. The Tower is notoriously brutal in its design and, indeed, is one of the most famous examples of Brutalist architecture in the city.

Brutalism is perhaps the ultimate expression of architectural arrogance. It is a spin-off from Modernism, which, for all its high-falutin’ idealism concerning the revolutionising of living space, has rarely worked in the real world. The architect Erno Goldfinger, who designed the Trellick Tower, summed up the aims of Modernism thus:

Whenever space is enclosed, a spatial sensation will automatically result for persons who happen to be within it.

At this point, I think I speak for us all when I say “No shit, Sherlock.” Goldfinger then adds,

It is the artist who comprehends the social requirements of his time and is able to integrate the technical potentialities in order to shape the spaces of the future.

Thus, Goldfinger (and the other Modernists) saw their duty as something more than simply to produce places for people to live and work. Their goal was nothing less than the reshaping of society through their harnessing of space. However, at this point, I would like to retort with the Da’s opinion on architecture, which he quotes from a builder he once did some work for.

For centuries, houses have been built with four walls and a pointy roof, and there’s a good reason for that.

You see, the problem with Modernist architecture is that while it was very high-minded in its conception, it was often ill-thought-out and badly-executed. I don’t think I’ll be contradicted when I say that the result, in the 1950s-70s, was the most hated architectural movement in Britain’s history. Cutting corners during construction resulted in unsafe buildings that aged poorly. In one notorious case – pictured left – the side of Ronan Point tower block in Newham collapsed following a gas explosion. Even when the buildings stayed up, they were ugly and depressing. Concrete grew damp and grimy, corridors admitted little light and sharp corners gathered dust and litter. The psychogeographical effects are summed up by Lynsey Hanley in her excellent Estates: An Intimate History:

You can’t drift easily this way around many council estates… They are too channelled, too labyrinthine to make wandering an enjoyable experience.

Indeed. If Goldfinger and co. intended to shape people, it’s not entirely clear what they intended to shape them into. Modernist housing became synonymous with crime, poverty and hopelessness.

The Trellick Tower opened for business in 1972, and within a few years had become as notorious as any other high rise council block – indeed, its prominence made it perhaps more notorious than most. It stood out for miles, compromising not one jot with its surroundings. Tales abounded of poor maintenance, robbery and rape. Goldfinger was utterly unrepentant, observing, “I built skyscrapers for people to live in there and now they messed them up – disgusting.” What a prick.

For many people, the ugly-bastardry of Trellick Tower demanded retribution, and a popular urban legend arose that Goldfinger was actually utterly guilt-ridden by what he had unleashed on the residents of West London and jumped to his death from the Tower’s roof. Nothing but wishful thinking.

Ian Fleming, however, took things a step further. Fleming, of course, was the author of the James Bond novels, and no fan of Brutalism. If you know the Bond canon at all, you’ll no doubt have figured what happened – Fleming decided to give Bond a greedy, cheating enemy by the name of Goldfinger. Goldfinger – the real one – was a man without humour, as you may have guessed (for instance, he was known to fire assistants for cracking jokes), and Fleming’s publishers baulked at the possibility of being sued by the architect. Fleming furiously suggested that the character be renamed “Goldprick,” and the publishers figured maybe they should just go ahead and what the hell.

Oddly enough, the Trellick Tower has had something of a revival in its reputation in recent years. Following the formation of a Residents’ Association and a number of improvements, it’s become a more desirable place to live, with flats selling for an amount reported to be “heinously large” by sources (well, Wikipedia). Its distinctive shape has given it something of an iconic stature, and it’s become weirdly accepted as part of the skyline, like an old scar. It’s even been given Grade II* listing, which I don’t think anyone saw coming back in 1972. Apart from Goldfinger, perhaps.

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