Category Archives: Kensington

The Beasts with Two Backs

Saturday was a busy, busy day. It started when I woke up in bed with two women and an empty champagne bottle. However, because this is the real world, the reason I was in bed with two women was because we’d passed out watching Moulin Rouge. The champagne is more complicated, and remind me to tell you about it some time.

Rashly, I had agreed to meet the Da and the Sis in London for lunch, and so I had to stagger back from Fulwell to Colliers Wood to get myself into some sort of respectable state. On the way, I decided that mobile phones should be banned on buses, purely because when you have a pounding headache and rising nausea, there is little that is more annoying than a guy sitting directly behind you, babbling non-stop for the entire journey. Well, actually, screaming kids are more annoying. There was one of those, too.

I had hoped a shower, a snooze and some lunch would take care of the hangover. Even a hair of the dog at the Princess Louise in Holborn didn’t help. This was particularly lame, as I was supposed to be meeting some of my theatrical chums at the Natural History Museum.

Our destination was the Sexual Nature exhibition, and after half an hour in line in the sun (with a hangover, I don’t think I mentioned that before) we were in. The exhibition, if you haven’t seen it, is basically devoted to the subject of reproduction in the animal kingdom. Reproduction is a hugely important part of life – if you go with Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory, it’s basically the meaning of life. But what makes this such an interesting exhibition is the incredible variety of it out there.

The exhibition covers a very wide area, from mating displays to pheromonesto  The Deed Itself to birth and those early days of life. Each section in turn covers a huge and incredible variety. Take the seahorse, where the males are the ones who give birth. Or ducks, in which the females have evolutionary strategies to deal with gang rape. Or the angler fish, for whom the males are so much smaller than the females that scientists initially thought they were parasites (any radical feminists in the readership?).

Isabella Rossellini is a strange woman.

Although such a broad topic is by necessity going to be unable to cover any individual topic in great depth, it certainly brought home the incredible variation among the many, many species with which we share the planet. We were particularly taken by the section on scent, including a rather pungent exhibit enabling you to experience the smell of jaguar piss. And there were a number of very strange short films by Isabella Rossellini from the Green Porno series. Good fun.

Following a swift cheap-and-cheerful Chinese meal, we headed over to Holborn, to the Princess Louise. As I think I’ve said before, this is one of my all-time favourite pubs, due to its pure Victorian decor downstairs, its luxurious lounge upstairs and, not that I want to sound like a cheapskate or anything, the fact that you can get a round of drinks for a tenner without descending to the accursed levels of Wetherspoons. Here, we met Shoinan for more alcohol and inappropriate conversation. At this point, my hangover finally subsided and I could return to damaging my liver in earnest.

After this, Shoinan and I decided to move on into sinful Soho to see where a couple of reprobates like us could get some more booze. We came upon the Nellie Dean, a pub we’d visited once before. This is another old-skool place, unkempt, disreputable-looking, not too crowded and not remotely trendy. Therefore, ideal for us. It’s also open until midnight, which helps. We continued to put the world to rights over a jug of Pimms (executive decision by Shoinan) before heading home.

I feel we all learnt a lot that day. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of it. Hey ho.

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Filed under Booze, Film and TV, Flora and Fauna, Kensington, London, Museums, Plants and animals, Randomness, Soho, tourism, West End

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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VandAlism

Last Friday I was saved from a fate worse than death (boredom) by an event in which the Directrix, a recurring figure in these pages, was participating. And so it was that I, together with a chum we shall refer to as “the Easterner” found ourselves en route to South Kensington. The Directrix’ event was taking place at no less a venue than the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Victoria and Albert (or “V&A,” as it’s known to friends) is, I have to admit, not my favourite museum by a long shot. I don’t know why, it focuses on art and design, and I’m quite interested in design as a subject. I think the problem is that it covers so very much – from the Classical period to the modern day, and with exhibits from all over the world – that you have to be really into design to take the whole thing in. Compounding this is the fact that it’s quite an old-fashioned museum in terms of the way its exhibits are laid out. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt made to really “wow” the casual visitor in the way that other museums in London do. The whole thing feels like a place you ought to visit rather than a place you visit because you really want to. You know, you go there with your grandma who’s down from Yorkshire for the first time in twenty years or something.

The Great Exhibition

The museum was opened in its current location in 1857, and like its friends the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, was funded by the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of 1851, seen on the right. The Exhibition was Prince Albert’s idea to showcase all of the greatest innovations of the day under a single roof. The venue was Hyde Park, in a massive building known as the Crystal Palace – an edifice made all the more spectacular by the fact that its designer, Joseph Paxton, had no formal training in architecture. The exhibition made a profit of over £180,000, which in modern money is lots, and Albert oversaw the purchase of land in then-largely-undeveloped South Kensington to establish an area of culture and education. This area became known to the satirists of the day as “Albertopolis.” Albert’s progressive aspirations for the British public were not universally acclaimed, perhaps not least because the German Prince Consort was not felt to be “one of us.” It’s like, what does a guy got to do to get some respect around here?

Prince Albert. His facial hair may also have worked against him.

Anyway, the other permanent legacy of the Great Exhibition was that many of the items therein formed the nucleus of the V&A. Lest you think the Royals were incredible egotists, the institution was known at its opening as the South Kensington Museum. However, you’ll notice that like the later title, “the South Kensington Museum” gives no clue whatsoever as to what the museum is actually about.

Anyway. The Directrix’ show was an experimental-type theatre piece as part of one of the events known as “V&A Lates.” These are, as the name suggests, late night openings. In this case, the theme was theatre, and the Directrix’ show was one of a number there. The Easterner and I spent the evening in fear of being audience-participated-with. Much as I enjoy theatre, I have a pathological hatred of audience participation. Actually, I don’t think anyone apart from the actors themselves actually enjoys it.

There were a number of events of great interest there – the one that really stuck for us was a reading from Shakespeare’s First Folio by father-and-son acting duo Timothy and Samuel West. The First Folio is the first halfway-decent edition of Shakespeare’s plays ever published, only omitting the lost texts Cardenio and Love’s Labours Won and the existing plays you’ve never read The Two Noble Kinsmen and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The readings were unpolished and not particularly rehearsed, but even so it was superb to see two highly acclaimed actors showing their stuff. It’s unusual to see Shakespeare’s comic scenes played in a manner that’s actually funny – most actors attempting them tend to go at them as if attempting to bludgeon the jokes to death. The Easterner at one point commented on West Sr, “Why doesn’ t that guy have a knighthood?” I concur.

Sadly, though, we ended up missing the Directrix’ show as a consequence of the labyrinthine layout of the museum and the limited timeframe. We were somewhat berated for this, and were informed that our punishment was that we’d missed out on the chance to meet Dame Judi Dench, who had been there to see it. Other Tom demanded to know why the Directrix had not attempted to capture Dame Judi – I forget what the answer was.

Then we went to the pub, where one guy was so drunk he pissed on the stairs. A good night, all in all.

And if you liked this…
… why not come and see the play I’m in? No audience participation, I promise.

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The evolution of evolution

As you will no doubt be aware, Saturday was Charles Darwin’s birthday (happy 202nd, Mr Darwin!) and so to celebrate, Becky B held a loosely Darwin-themed party. My own shirt evolved several frills to frighten off predators, which seemed to work, as I am still alive. I even managed to avoid a hangover the next morning, which was impressive given that I’d started Saturday with a stonker of a headache.

Charles Darwin evolved an impressive beard towards the end of his life.

I’m something of a fan of Charles Darwin and, indeed, of evolutionary biology in general. I’m no scientist, it goes without saying if you’re a regular reader of this blog, but I take an interest. Call me an evolution groupie, if you like.

I was actually introduced to the concept at a very young age – I can’t have been much older than six or seven when I came across an ape-like man in a case in the Natural History Museum. How Wayne Rooney got in there in the first place, I shall never know, but next along was a case with a model of homo erectus therein. I expressed bemusement to the Ma, who explained that, in fact, people thousands of years ago looked like apes and, further back, actually were. This didn’t seem too ridiculous to me – if every generation looks different from the last one, well, what was so strange about the concept that we might have been apes a long time ago? After all, an ape sort of looks like a human if you squint.

[PARENTHESIS: The word “orangutan” is a Malay term meaning “man of the forest.” Which suggests that the people of Malaysia also saw the resemblance. Despite making such excellent librarians, orangutans are critically endangered and may be extinct in the wild by 2015.]

So anyway, I never found evolution to be a weird idea. Okay, it conflicted with the Bible on a lot of points, but I had the kind of nonconformist view of Christianity that was fairly typical of a British six-year-old (for instance, I thought the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost all being the same person was some sort of misprint).

Actually, Charles Darwin’s own religious background is something of a curiosity in terms of how very orthodox it was. Creationists tend to view him as a kind of Antichrist who came up with his theories purely to make Baby Jesus cry, but in his early years he seriously considered becoming a vicar in the Church of England. Unusually in his family, he was entirely C of E in his views, despite his father and grandfather being freethinkers and his wider family being largely nonconformist. Even at the end of his life, he never identified as atheist, preferring to describe himself as agnostic – although some accounts suggest that he didn’t see any real difference between the two, except that people who called themselves atheists tended to be kind of jerky. A quick tour of any Internet bulletin board on the subject of religion will show that he wasn’t entirely wrong there.

There’s nothing particularly strange about the idea of someone taking an interest both in holy matters and in biology (although Kent Hovind can still piss right off). Bear in mind that your average Victorian clergyman was an educated, middle-class fellow with a decent income and not much to do during the week. If they were in a country parish, studying nature was an agreeable way to pass the time.

I thoroughly recommend a visit to Gilbert White’s house if you should find yourself near Selborne. White was an 18th century curate and also a kind of proto-ecologist, believing in the importance of studying wildlife in its natural habitat. This led him to discover that, among other things, birds migrate as opposed to, e.g. hiding underwater in the winter (a serious theory at the time).

Or if you’re looking for another vicar who paved the way for modern biology, how about the Very Reverend William Buckland? Perhaps the first British paleontologist, he disputed the suggestion that modern rock formations had been created by Noah’s flood and in 1824 discovered the fossil bones that he would name “Megalosaurus” – this was the earliest identification of dinosaurs. He also reputedly ate the mummified heart of Louis XIV. Nothing to do with religion vs. science, I just thought it was an interesting fact.

Yet another irony, considering the question of religion vs. evolution, is the fact that although Darwin is perhaps the most important name in modern biology, there was one significant place in the 19th century where his name was mud – the Natural History Museum. More specifically, in the office of the Museum’s effective founder, Richard Owen. Now, I don’t want to dis Owen for his work as a biologist, and there’s no doubt that without his diligent work (and friends in high places), the nation’s natural history collections would have remained a mere collection of trinkets and curios overseen by erratic curators in a wing of the British Museum. But he refused to believe in the concept of evolution by natural selection, firmly coming down on the side of creationism. It’s said that the reason the Natural History Museum’s facade depicts only living species on the west wing and only extinct ones on the east was because Owen refused to even passively acknowledge that they might be linked. This also goes some way to explaining why Darwin’s statue is in the tea room – it was a late addition.

Although in the 1860s Owen’s views were those of an intelligent if conservative scientist, within a few decades they would become less and less credible and a hundred years later would have been abandoned by all except fundies and cranks. These days, the museum even has a research centre named after Darwin.

For all the likes of Richard Dawkins might complain about a rising tendency towards fundamentalism and the rejection of evolution, I don’t think there’s that great a risk in this country. Britain is an essentially secular nation – the Archbishop of Canterbury himself admits to the truth of evolution (so does the Pope, by the way). There might be Bible-bashers ranting about how Darwin burns in hell even as we speak, and there might be scientists being patronising and rude to religious folk, but for the majority of the nation, I don’t think we really give a damn.

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Quite early one morning

So, to return to the subject of yesterday’s entry, Sunday morning was spent at the start of the annual London-Brighton Veteran Car Run in Hyde Park. Ridiculously early, in fact – the whole thing kicked off at around 7.00. Did you know there’s a 7.00 in the morning on Sundays? Me neither. They must have brought it in with daylight savings or something.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – what’s a cool and urbane-type fellow like me doing watching really old cars on a freezing cold Sunday morning, when all decent right-thinking folk are still a-bed?

Well, call it sentimentality. I love the London-Brighton run. I love the cold, I love the being-really-sleepy, the long walk to actually get to the start line because there’s no free parking spaces nearby, the realisation that my footwear is entirely inappropriate, it’s all part of the experience for me. If it was comfortable, it would be the Brighton run, you know?

Sadly, despite the unholiness of the hour, we managed to miss the very start of the run, so I got few photos of the really early vehicles. I even missed my favourite, the frankly insane Salvesen steam carriage.

Nevertheless, I hope the photos I did get convey something of the atmosphere of the event. Note the incredible variety of vehicles in those early days. Makes most steampunk artists look frankly unimaginative.

This guy wasn't taking part in the run. He just had a penny farthing with him. Awesome!

Another steamer. They're surprisingly quiet, you know. I want one.

These farm-buggy-looking things are Oldsmobiles. Awful lot of them on the run.

This here is a steam car. It is powered by steam.

I love the weathered paintwork on this one.

 

 

Believe it or not, this is an electric car.

 

Bloody traffic jams. I blame Boris.

 

Incredibly, the man in the middle survived.

 

The boys from Imperial College travel in style.

 

I love these little Humberettes. If I can't have a steam car, I think I'd like one of these.

 

I'm not normally a fan of Mercedes, but hot damn.

What I find interesting about this, apart from the colour scheme, is the fact that it has solid tyres and springs in the spokes of its wheels. Unusual evolutionary path there.

The Mercedes is like the Rolls Royce of automobiles.

The mighty Milwaukee steamer suffers from engine trouble. Not to worry, it was back to work in a jiffy.

 

A few stragglers hurry to catch up...

 

... and it's time to go home.

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Current events, History, Kensington, London, Photos, Transport

Saints or Sinners?

I’ve bitched about the recent developments in Portobello Road before, and today I took a bit of a stroll around the area – I had the day off, as I was returning from a wedding in Sussex, and so I decided to make the most of it. Above you can see the most notorious recent development in Portobello Road, namely the All Saints store.

You know what really bugs me about this store, apart from its location, its size, the fact that it’s a chain store and the fact that its construction has been allowed? It’s the fact that not only have they had the gall to replace the old market stalls, but they’ve tried to make it whimsical and olde-worlde. The three shop fronts you see in that picture – the black one, the maroon one and the green one – are all the same store. And they’ve filled the windows with antique sewing machines (BECAUSE IT IS A CLOTHES SHOP YOU SEE).

I hate these chains that try to look like the independent shops they drive out of business. Starbucks with its cafe society decor, Burger King with its American diner theme. It sort of feels like rich folks slumming it for fun.

Having said that, if All Saints had built a garish and out-of-place regular shopfront, I’d be complaining about how they haven’t even tried to be in keeping with the area.

Screw All Saints, is what I’m trying to say here.

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Okay, what?

Read this my droogs:

http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23853696-portobello-traders-lose-arcade-fight-as-council-gives-green-light-to-five-storey-retail-complex.do

If you couldn’t be bothered to read it, the big news is that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have given their approval for a massive redevelopment on the site of the Good Fairy market in Portobello Road. A five-storey retail and residential complex is, according to Kensington and Chelsea’s council, totally cool man. Nearly 34,000 members of the Save the Portobello Road Market group on Facebook would apparently disagree.

And rightly so. Lipka’s and Van’s, two other arcades, have been sold off already. The former is now a controversial branch of All Saints and the latter is going a similar route. The council are whining that technically this is perfectly legal and there’s nothing they can do – the sites were sold as retail, and they’re being used for retail by the new developers. The phrase “grow a pair” springs unbidden to my lips as the street tumbles towards genericism.

I mean, the problem with this must surely be obvious. Portobello Road is a tourist attraction. Have you never seen Bedknobs and Broomsticks, man? Have you never seen Notting Hill? Have you never read the Paddington Bear books? Shall I spell this out for you? If-Portobello-Road-loses-the-thing-that-makes-it-a-tourist-attraction-then-it-will-no-longer-be-a-tourist-attraction. Sure, people will visit – for all people complain about chain stores, someone’s obviously using them, otherwise they wouldn’t be chain stores in the first place. But what would be the point of specifically visiting Notting Hill? Why not go to Kensington High Street, or Oxford Street, or Westfield London, or Kingston? You could get the same thing there, and more of it. Meanwhile, a place that’s genuinely unique and interesting, with a character found nowhere else in London, will disappear. Not to mention the unemployment resulting from the closure of hundreds of antique stalls.

Frankly, though, I feel those who are against redevelopment are pissing in the wind. Because the Council simply don’t care. Why should they? Money talks. Redevelopers bring in money, character doesn’t. That’s why there’s no longer a market at Shepherd Market. That’s why Camden Passage is so crap these days. Portobello Road Market will disappear, replaced with rows of shiny plastic chain stores, perhaps with twee little plaques on the wall explaining that they were built on the site of historic Portobello Road Market.

Gah. This may be a little incomprehensible. I’m tired and cross. In short, a message to the Council: piss on your dreams.

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