Category Archives: Psychogeography

Dame Thora and the Killer Coat

London has no shortage of unusual ghost stories, from the Bald Chicken of Pond Square to Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane. Many of these unhappy shades choose to haunt Theatreland – and why not? If you’re looking for a spooky place to hang around scaring the living daylights out of people, you couldn’t do much better than a dark and gloomy playhouse.

Among the city’s many theatrical ghosts are William Terriss at the Adelphi and Covent Garden Underground Station, Sarah Siddons at her old house in Baker Street and the World War I soldier at the Coliseum. For those seeking less highbrow entertainments, Nell Gwynne was said to appear in the Gargoyle Club, a strip joint in Soho.

My personal favourite, though, involved the late and much-lamented Dame Thora Hird. In her long career, she played many roles, but is perhaps most famous for her long run on Last of the Summer Wine.

Long before that, she trod the boards in various venues, including a stint at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage. Here, in 1949, she played a lead role in a costume drama called The Queen Came By. Like many theatres, the Embassy had a store of old-fashioned costumes. Miss Hird was outfitted for her role as a seamstress with a short velvet jacket pulled out of a box of Victorian clothing that had been in store.

While it was initially a perfect fit, during the run she experienced a degree of discomfort – at first just a little tightness under the arms, which grew worse and worse even after the jacket had been let out. Worse still, the brooch she was wearing felt as if it was sticking into her throat. Attempts to adjust it were futile, and when the show moved to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End she simply did away with the painful piece of jewelery.

Yet still the jacket caused discomfort. The tightness was particularly noted around the neck. The Stage Manager tried it on, and felt the same. The Director’s wife felt a similar pinch, and when she took it off she had painful red marks around her throat, consistent with an attempt at strangling. When Thora’s understudy, whom Miss Hird described as “very psychic,” tried it on, she saw a vision of a teenage girl wearing the jacket in her bathroom mirror that night.

Eventually it was decided that the jacket itself had to go. But before it did, a cast member named Frederick Piffard, at the instigation of esteemed periodical Psychic News, decided that a seance was the only way to get to the bottom of this mystery. On the last night, after the final curtain, it was organised. Instead of indulging in the traditional last night pasttime of getting roaring drunk, the cast, crew and three mediums held the seance on stage in front of an invited audience.

Almost everyone who tried the jacket on reported the same sensation of strangulation, one even needing to be revived with water. A couple off the street, too, felt the hands of a mysterious assailant when asked to put the garment on. No conclusions were reached as to the identity of the spectre that had apparently taken residence in this coat (not least because the audience was rather more sceptical than the mediums and happily voiced this fact), but two of the mediums reported an image of a young Victorian girl violently struggling against an unknown assailant.

Speaking personally, at the risk of sounding disrespectful to the late Dame Thora, I’m not particularly convinced. There have been some pretty hard-to-explain ghost stories that I’ve heard of, but this one could mostly be accounted for by a too-tight jacket and hysteria. Theatrical folk prone to hysteria? Surely not.

As for the jacket itself, apparently it made its way to America. So watch out next time you’re vintage shopping and you come across a bargain, I guess.

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Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Covent Garden, History, London, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography, Theatre, West End

London Lit: Neverwhere

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to finally get around to writing this entry. If I’m going to be meta about it, this is actually one of the first entries I planned to write, and that must have been, what, two and a half years ago? Daaaamn.

So yeah, Neverwhere. One of the best-known works of urban fantasy and one of the best-known London novels, I think I’m being fair when I say these things. Neil Gaiman’s first novel and my personal favourite.

The story is fairly simple – our protagonist is the slightly Arthur Dent-esque Richard Mayhew, a relative newcomer to London. One day he comes across what he thinks is a wounded homeless girl and offers to help her, only to swiftly and unwittingly find himself drawn into a bizarre and fantastical version of the city existing below and around our own – London Below. Worse, the girl – Door – is being pursued by a couple of bizarre and apparently time-travelling assassins. And so we find outselves journeying through London-as-filtered-through-Neil-Gaiman’s-brain.

If any of you saw the superb Gaiman-penned Doctor Who episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife,’ you’ll recognise the hallmarks. Strange people living in a thrown-together world and plenty of whiplash between scary and funny. If it was a movie, it would probably be directed by Tim Burton. Hence we get bizarre scenes like the visit to Earl’s Court. That is to say, an actual Court held by an Earl. A medieval court on an Underground train. There’s also an Angel called Islington and an order of Black Friars. Oh, and you get to learn the real reason why you should Mind the Gap.

For those of you familiar with the history and mythology surrounding the city, there’s even more. From abandoned Tube stations to a throwaway reference to Gog and Magog (blink and you’ll miss it), it’s very clear that Gaiman’s done his homework in researching his fantasy world.

My first exposure to the phenomenon, oddly enough, was not via the book. It was over a decade ago, on TV. You see, Neverwhere was originally developed as a fantasy TV series at the behest of none other than Lenny Henry. This was long before the revival of Doctor Who, and so the general attitude towards fantasy on TV was that it was all a little bit silly. As a result, the whole thing looks a bit cheap and naff. Which is a pity, because it’s really not. There is some superb location filming, including the use of Battersea Power Station, HMS Belfast, Down Street Station and the old Post Office Underground. The cast features some interesting before-they-were-famous faces, including Paterson Joseph, Tamsin Greig and Peter Capaldi (as the aforementioned Angel Islington). It was a bit weird, to be sure, but it piqued my curiosity and I went out and bought the book. And I was hooked. I’m told that the version in print today differs somewhat from that 1997 publication, so I should probably buy the new one as well. Not that I’m a fanboy or anything.

It’s not the only urban fantasy set in London, nor is it even the first. But it is perhaps the best-known and tends to be very highly rated – China Miéville, for instance, lists it as an influence on his own London fantasies.  I think the reason for its success is that it never takes itself too seriously.  The characters are strange, often scary, but strangely likeable – I want to see more of the sinister Croup and Vandemar, for a start.

As I say, Gaiman is clearly familiar with the folklore and history of London, but you don’t need to be in order to enjoy the book. It’s my experience that a lot of the more well-read authors want you to know just how clever they are and their work suffers as a result. In the case of Neverwhere, a passing familiarity with the city will see you just fine. And having read it, you may want to increase that familiarity.

That’s a thought – has anyone ever done a Neverwhere tour?

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Filed under 20th Century, Film and TV, Islington, Literature, London, London Underground, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography

You’re Kraken me up

Ah, lazy bank holiday weekend, I’ve been celebrating with a substantial fried breakfast and heinous amounts of coffee. Be still, my beating heart – and it probably will. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

I’ve just finished reading China Miéville’s Kraken, his most recent work of urban fantasy, you see. It’s taken me a while – I do, as I think I have said before, have a reading list as long as my arm.

I’ve talked about Miéville before in these pages, but to sum up – he’s a fantasy author with something of a cult following who writes work set primarily in an urban environment. Kraken, like his earlier works Un Lun Dun and King Rat, is set in a strange alternate fantasy version of London.

Our protagonist is Billy Harrow, a curator at the Natural History Museum. One morning, he discovers that one of the Museum’s star exhibits, a preserved giant squid in a tank, has vanished without trace. Almost immediately, Billy finds himself dragged into an utterly bizarre underworld of cults and magic, the target of a police unit dedicated to investigating weirdness, a church that worships the Kraken and a gang leader who happens to be a living tattoo. Oh, and the Apocalypse is coming. Make that Apocalypses.

What I would say marks this book out among Miéville’s work is the fun he has with it. He did have a few laughs in Un Lun Dun, but like so many adult fantasy authors who try to break into kids’ books, they came across as forced. Kraken, on the other hand, is written with a kind of 2000AD sensibility, a real sense of deliciously black humour. We are introduced to the Londonmancers, magicians who might best be described as pro-active psychogeographers. The Tattoo’s henchmen are the Knuckleheads, whose name is rather more literal than you might expect. Wati, an ally of the protagonist, is a spirit who can manifest in any statue or carving, right down to a Captain Kirk action figure. And there’s the rather disturbing question of what actually happens when you teleport a person…

For someone who’s made his name subverting the fantasy genre (he once described J R R Tolkien as “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature”), the author does get a lot of mileage out of playing with clichés. The best (and funniest) example of this might be when the foul-mouthed police magician Collingwood goes after Wati using spirits literally created out of copper stereotypes (“bring this little toerag in, overtime, nonce, slag, guv, sarge, proceedin long the eye street”).

This is London fantasy in the grand tradition of Neverwhere – Miéville has acknowledged his debt to Neil Gaiman in the past, and in particular has noted the similarities between Kraken’s Goss and Subby and Neverwhere’s Croup and Vandemar. However, unlike many works of London fantasy, this one plays off the incoherence of the city – the fact that London cannot simply be summed up according to any particular mythology or structure, that it’s many different places coexisting at once, perceived in many different ways by many different people.

As a Miéville book, it’s much more lightweight than most of his other work. If it has a major fault, it’s that there is perhaps too much going on – so much is thrown in by way of crazy ideas and characters that it’s hard to track down the central core of the book. When the big revelation comes at the end, it doesn’t make you think, “Of course! Why didn’t I realise that?” so much as it makes you think, “Eh? Where did that come from?”

In short, if you’re hoping for another The City and The City, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a work of urban fantasy that’s intelligent and gripping and doesn’t take itself too seriously, then it comes highly recommended from me, for what that’s worth.

Here’s to the upcoming release of Embassytown…

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Filed under Literature, London, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography

Foulwell and Kingston-Upon-Railway

The suburbs are weird, aren’t they? I mean, by their very nature. Central London has long been a well-defined place. City walls, city gates, parish boundaries, main roads and the river have meant that for centuries the different places in London have been pretty clearly delineated. Granted, there’s the occasional dispute about, e.g., where the West End ends, and there are new places like Fitzrovia and Chinatown to contend with, but by and large you know where you are.

The suburbs, though, are different. You can’t really have suburbs until you have decent transport, so the area we now tend to think of as “suburbia” didn’t really exist until the 19th century. And I know I go on about the railways in London quite a lot, but the fact is that they were absolutely instrumental to the formation of Greater London.

For instance, take where I live – Colliers Wood. Where is Colliers Wood? It’s at the southern end of the Northern Line (incidentally, it’s a geographical irony that the Northern Line goes further south than any other Tube line). When was it founded? Well, basically, Colliers Wood-the-place didn’t exist until 1926, when the Tube station was opened. The area wasn’t exactly desolate and uninhabited, but this place as a whole was known as Merton. Colliers Wood was a local landmark that hadn’t existed for about fifty years when the Tube came along. Had the Underground station been named something different, I might well consider myself a resident of Merton Abbey, or Haydons Road, or Tooting-on-Tube.

The last may seem like a flight of fancy, but know this – there nearly was a suburb with an equally stupid name. When the London and Southampton Railway opened their station a little way south of the busy market town of Kingston, they planned to call it Kingston-upon-Railway. Because it sort-of served Kingston, but not quite. Good sense eventually prevailed, and it was renamed in 1869. The original Surbiton was a small village, also not-quite-served by the new station. However, the station and its railway line were very convenient for commuters, and so a town grew up around the station. The station was called Surbiton, so, inevitably, was the town around it. What if the station had been called something else? Would we even have a Surbiton today? Would we think of Kingston-upon-Railway as the main town, and Kingston-upon-Thames be relegated to the status of “Old Kingston” or some such?

I suspect a few of the suburbs, such as Hampton Wick, wouldn’t really be anything more than a theoretical concept were it not for their railway stations. Hampton Wick has little by way of a focal point other than its station. Certain other suburbs, lacking notability, were absorbed by others as the commuter towns expanded – Lonesome being a case in point, once a village in its own right and now just a part of Streatham.

And this brings me on to the strange case of Fulwell. Fulwell is one of those places that always feels as if it’s on the verge of vanishing, as I had cause to reflect when I went there for a party on Saturday. It’s quite old, its name may have derived from “foul well” (so good work on getting that renamed, I suppose). It doesn’t really have a high street to speak of – a few shops, but nothing to distinguish it from the outlying parts of Twickenham or Teddington, on whose borders it lies. Its major landmark is the bus garage, pictured above right, but that’s more of an obstacle than a focal point. There is a railway station, sure, but it’s an unmanned two-platform branch line affair in a back street. I’m not clear exactly where it begins and ends. I reckon that, were the station to be renamed, the town would cease to exist altogether, torn between Teddington and Twickenham. It’s usually at this point that a bunch of angry residents of the area post a huge rant in the comments section about how I’m wrong and stupid, so scroll down to skip straight to that.

Yet right next to Fulwell, but a short walk from the station, you have Hampton Hill – nothing but a high street really, yet nobody would dispute the validity of its existence. Damned if I understand the suburbs.

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Geography, History, London, London Underground, Psychogeography, Suburbia, Transport

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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Filed under 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Environment, Fashion and trends, Geography, History, Kensington, London, Notable Londoners, Psychogeography, Suburbia

A Moving Story

My God, comrades, the weekend I have had. You see, I’m moving house. I’m just down the road from my current place, though, so in true sitcom fashion basic continuity will be maintained.

For an awfully long time I’ve been unhappy with my current place, pictured left. It was really only supposed to be a temporary measure while I looked for somewhere more permanent and therefore I was prepared to overlook many of my doubts about the place, like the decor, the amount of space and the fact that my new housemates seemed to be kinda twats. Unfortunately, habit took hold. You know how it is – moving is such a hassle, house hunting is such a hassle, so once you’re settled in, as long as you’re not unhappy, might as well stick with it.

At first, this was all fine. I mean, I didn’t think I had very much in common with my new housemates, but that was probably because I didn’t know them. You know how it is – it takes a while to get to know someone, and when you’re living with them, that’s a whole new level of getting to know them. But after a couple of months, I came to realise that actually, no, I had nothing in common with them. These were people who considered me dangerously hedonistic for going out midweek. I don’t mean going out and getting absolutely lashed, I mean just going out and meeting friends. Although to my housemates, there wasn’t really much of a difference. Drinking at all = road to ruin.

Now, I’ve been in good houseshares and bad houseshares, and in a situation like this it’s going to be difficult to avoid it being a bad houseshare. Plan A was to really, really try to get on with them. Find interests to share. If we didn’t have any shared interests, well, find something they were interested in and pretend to like it. The problem with this idea was that they don’t seem to have any interests beyond sitting in front of the TV. There are only so many Family Guy reruns I can take before abandoning the experiment.

Well, when that fails, there’s plan B – involve them in the stuff I’m interested in. My friends are always welcoming to new folk, and I felt sure that a night out or two would turn things around. Unfortunately, I ran into exactly the same problem – my h0usemates are not interested in anything other than sitting in front of the TV. Attempts to get them to come out failed without exception.

And so the only way to avoid falling into the Bad Houseshare trap was Plan C – don’t hang out with them at all. I hate this, because in order to carry it out you have to be that one housemate who nobody ever sees. You know, the one who stays in his room all the time, only comes out a couple of times a day, you never know if he’s out or in? I hate that guy. But that’s what I ended up becoming. A sociable, outgoing guy on one side of the front door, on the other I was the weird and antisocial dude who keeps himself to himself and is probably a serial killer. Not cool, especially the serial killer part.

So when a friend living nearby mentioned that she had a room going spare in her place, which coincidentally happened to be very close to my current place, you can imagine my interest was piqued. Apart from anything else, it sounded like a match made in heaven. The room was going spare in her house and I was going spare in my place.

I had my doubts at first, though. It all seemed a bit sudden. Was I just leaping on this because it was a quick fix? Was it unwise of me to leap on this opportunity, purely for the sake of better housemates, a larger room and cheaper rent? The consensus of literally everybody I asked was “no, accept the offer, you idiot.” Well, they didn’t say “idiot.”

My present, soon-to-be-ex-housemates, had no particular objection beyond quibbling over when they would pay back the deposit. I just decided to say “fuckit” and let them keep it as the last month’s rent. To be honest, there are so many minor repairs that I’ve been meaning to get around to doing that I probably wouldn’t have got a lot of the deposit back anyway. But in turn, those repairs resulted from the fact that the landlord, in common with landlords everywhere, is a stingy bastard. So, basically, long story short, I couldn’t be arsed.

And so I’m moving things over. So close am I to the new place that it is actually easier to move everything by hand than to hire a van or even use a car. So that’s what I’m doing – carrying things over box by box, bag by bag. Nevertheless, one of my soon-to-be-ex housemates had the stones today to tell me that my room was looking very untidy, and that they’d like it if I could tidy it up before they showed it to prospective new housemates. This while I was in the middle of moving things over. What a dick.

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Filed under Current events, Meta, Psychogeography, Randomness

Good Friday? I’ll say!

Happy Easter, chums. I hope the weekend finds you well. I am fine. At the time of writing, it’s Good Friday and I’ve just come back from a rather unexpectedly pleasant day out which was, I feel, in the true spirit of psychogeography.

I mean, it was a lovely sunny day outside, and as it was a four-day weekend, I was feeling rather chipper. I wasn’t at all sure what I wanted to do, so I thought I’d explore the canals around Limehouse a bit more. Alas, when I got to Bank, I discovered that the Docklands Light Railway wasn’t running. Yes, I know, I know, could have seen that when I started the journey, but that’s not how I roll.

So, vaguely at a loss, I decided to just go for a wander. I broke the surface (not literally) and wandered vaguely North-East through Leadenhall Market. This place, pictured right, is an absolutely gorgeous Victorian shopping arcade. During the week it houses a food market, but at weekends is rather peaceful – I have yet to sample the weekday wares, alas. You may know it from the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in which it appeared as the area around Diagon Alley. I got the impression Chris Columbus was going for the Bridget Jones’ Diary school of London film making, in which London is a magical place that hasn’t quite moved out of the Victorian era.

Heading out beyond Liverpool Street, I came upon Petticoat Lane market. I’ve never been here before, and I must admit that I’d never really thought about going there before. I’d heard of it, but had no especial desire to visit. It’s not one of the top tourist destinations, and as such doesn’t cater to tourists. It’s primarily a clothing market, which is great if you are me. However, I do have to say that there’s a lot of duplication between stalls – if you’ve seen one selection of shirts, you’ve seen them all. The market has historically been a place of dubious legality, only becoming official in 1936, but despite this and the lack of tourism, it remains a firm local institution. While I wouldn’t go out of my way for it personally, it’s worth a look if, like me, you get stupidly excited about clothes.

Speaking of places where one can get stupidly excited about clothes, Brick Lane is very nearby, and so I made a beeline that way. With it being a bank holiday and thus less crowded than usual, and with the sun out, it was an utterly delightful experience. Sadly, at present, I find myself having to hold the purse strings – I’m moving house shortly, you see. And so it makes perfect sense that the universe should choose this point to taunt me with an incredible stripy blazer in black, red and grey (which I could totally pull off, I’m telling you) and a pair of Chelsea boots in exactly the style I’ve been looking for. Sadly, I could afford neither of these. Not even in the “can but shouldn’t” way. Instead, I consoled myself with a bagel, and now my fingers smell indelibly of chopped herring.

It was at this point that a teenager told me to get a haircut. I have thus out-fabuloused both the teens and the Shoreditch kids, which I believe is what is termed “bi-winning.”

This being done, I decided to finish my journey by walking up City Road to Islington. Wandering around Camden Passage, I came across one of the most amazing canes I have ever seen. It had a silver skull-shaped handle with a jawbone that doubled as a cigar cutter. But sadly it was £150, which I really, really, really cannot afford. Finally, I know the pain of unrequited love.

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Filed under Current events, East End and Docklands, Fashion and trends, Geography, Islington, London, Markets, Photos, Psychogeography, Shopping, Shoreditch, The City, tourism, Weird shops