Fall Backwards

I lived in Florida for 10 years and it all sort of went by in a blur because there is no real changing of the seasons to mark the passing of time there. The climate just goes from really hot to less hot, and the palm trees look the same all year round.

In New England it’s hard not to notice the change of seasons, especially Autumn which announces itself in a colourful explosion of red, orange, and yellow leaves on the trees. It really is quite spectacular, people here drive out into the country just to see the foliage (we did it last week). The London “countryside” (ie: the parks) can be quite beautiful in the Autumn too, as you can see from the above photo taken from the book Richmond Park Photos.

Here’s another lovely change-of-seasons record. As you can tell, like most English people, when I don’t have anything interesting to say I talk about the weather.

Download: Summer Is Over — Dusty Springfield (mp3)

For the anoraks out there this was the b-side of “Losing You” in 1964 and is now a bonus track on the CD version of A Girl Called Dusty.

My London

“The Greater London Council is responsible for a sprawl shaped like a rugby ball about twenty five miles long and twenty miles wide; my city is a concise kidney-shaped patch within that space, in which no point is no more than about seven miles from any other. On the south it is bounded by the river, on the north by the fat tongue of Hampstead Heath and Highgate Village, on the west by Brompton Cemetery and on the east by Liverpool Street station. I hardly ever trespass beyond those limits, and when I do I feel like I’m in foreign territory…It is the visitor who goes everywhere; to the resident, a river or railway track, even if it is bridged every few hundred yards, may be as absolute a boundary as a snakepit or ocean.”
Jonathan Raban, Soft City (1974)

A bloke at work asked me recently if I’d been to Abbey Road to see the famous zebra crossing and was really shocked when I said I hadn’t. He assumed that, being a Londoner, I must have.

Besides the fact that I would never act like a sight-seeing tourist in the city I grew up in*, Abbey Road is in NW8 which might as well be Mars to this boy from Fulham SW6 who rarely ventured to the north of the city. To me, Camden was a foreign land I only ever visited to go to the Electric Ballroom. My London — the city I knew and was comfortable in — was bordered on the north by the Westway, went as far east as Holborn, out west to Hammersmith, from there south of the river to Barnes, and then east on that side of the Thames as far as Wandsworth.

If it was a Tube map it would look like this:

Though I have lived and worked in some of them at various times, the areas beyond these borders might as well have a Here Be Dragons sign on them – or at least Here Be Media Luvvies (North London) and Here Be Pub Fights (SE London) — for all I know about them, or care to. Visiting friends who lived outside my comfort zone I often didn’t feel like I was still in London even though the A-Z said I was — I mean, where the bloody hell is Stoke Newington? It’s doubly uncomfortable feeling like a stranger in your own home city, and you don’t ever want the shame of someone thinking you’re a tourist or out-of-towner by asking for directions or looking at a map.

Every Londoner will have their own version of the city like this (just as there are New Yorkers who never go uptown or downtown) because it’s just too big for one person to feel at home everywhere. I remember several times falling asleep drunk on a night bus and waking up in unfamiliar territory near the end of the route. You quickly get off the bus in a panic — where the fuck am I? — and start walking (or staggering) back in what you think is the right direction. Then, in the distance, you see a building or road that you know and immediately your spirit lifts and your pace quickens. You’ve crossed the border into your London and everything is going to be all right.

Download: London Town – Light of The World (mp3)

Pretty sure I posted this song before a few years ago but what the hell, it’s worth doing again. Think this might be my all-time favourite London record, and there’s been some good ones.

*I have also never been inside Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s, or The Tower of London.

Violent Playground

A lot of the attraction of adventure playgrounds for kids was the feeling that they were places to do what you wanted. Even when there was an adult present we still made the rules, which is why this old video of the Notting Hill adventure playground often resembles outtakes from Lord of The Flies. Though the video is labeled “late-1960″ it looks much later in the decade than that judging by the clothes.

I played in adventure playgrounds in Fulham and Holland Park when I was a kid — and think we made it to the Notting Hill one too — so this is a real nostalgia overload for me. So much so that I couldn’t see a lot of it through the sentimental tears that were filling my eyes, soon as I saw those two boys walking down the street eating bags of chips I was a puddle, and the little boy saying “If my mum wins at the bingo we might have a holiday” is heartbreaking. It’s also a reminder that Notting Hill wasn’t always so posh and desirable.

I belong to a Facebook group for people who grew up in Fulham and whenever someone mentions old playgrounds everyone starts grumbling about this faceless, shadowy organization called “Health and Safety” who are apparently dedicated to ruining children’s fun, unlike in the good old days when we were free to get tetanus from a rusty old swing. Sounds like one of those imaginary Daily Mail bogeymen to me. Maybe they’re right, but watching this video it doesn’t look like things have changed all that much, though the equipment looks better made and there seem to be more grown-ups present.

Download: See Emily Play – Pink Floyd (mp3)

The Life

Browsing Carnaby Street! God, before there was Tiles, that was what Sunshine used to do everyday at lunch. Sunshine, whose real name is Tony Newman, of Stamford Hill, Tottenham, and who used to be called Blossom (well, Sunshine tops Blossom anyway) Sunshine would cut out of the stationer’s store with the straight lunch mask on and then head straight for Carnaby Street and then just walk up and down Carnaby Street’s weird two blocks for an hour, past the Lord John, West One, the Tom Cat, men’s boutiques with strange enormous blow-up photographs in the windows, of young men flying through the air with some kind of Batman jockstraps on and rock music pouring out the doors, and kids just like him, Sunshine, promenading up and down, and tourists, christ, hundreds of tourists coming in there to photograph each other in front of Male West One instead of Big Ben, and busloads of schoolgirls with their green blazers on and embroidered crests on the breast pocket, all come to see the incredible Carnaby Street, which turns out to be a very small street with shops and awnings and people standing around with cameras in their hands, and Sunshines, all the Sunshines of this world trundling up and down for their whole lunch hour, not eating a goddamned thing, just immersing themselves in The Life.

Tom Wolfe, The Noonday Underground (1965)

Download: The ‘In’ Crowd – The Ramsey Lewis Trio (mp3)

Bill Stickers

In the old, dirty (and cheaper) London like the 1970s of these photos you’d see concert ads like these plastered everywhere, and in areas like Camden and Ladbroke Grove with a happening music scene and a more bohemian population the walls were often like dense collages of old and new posters pasted on top of each other in thick layers.

This constantly-changing gallery was a highly visible sign of the vibrancy of the city’s music scene, and these cheaply-printed, often illegally posted posters were a very rock and roll form of advertising. More than an email alert anyway.

A couple of gigs well worth going to above, like The Police with The Cramps at the Lyceum, and Rockpile with The Specials (bottom of the bill!) at the Palais, while below on the right there is a poster advertising the strange combo of bland soft-rockers Sad Cafe with punk poet John Cooper Clarke. Think I’d rather have gone to see Motörhead at The Music Machine..

This must be the strangest one though: Prog Rockers Curved Air with the New York Dolls third on the bill. I like to think people had more eclectic tastes back then, but more than likely the Dolls got booed off or had beer cans thrown at them by angry hippies.

I’ve seen some great headliner/support combos in my day: Orange Juice/The Pale Fountains, The Pretenders/UB40, U2/Public Enemy, and Siouxsie & The Banshees/The Associates. Sadly that last one was a bit of a disaster as the punks in the audience didn’t care for their avant-garde artpop and showered Billy Mackenzie in spit and beer the whole time they were on. The poor sod just stood there in a big fur coat and took it with a massive grin on his face.

I never saw this lot in concert but the song has the word “Wall” in the title and it’s live too, so what the hell.

Download: Over The Wall (Live 1981) – Echo & The Bunnymen (mp3)

Back To The Green (Again)

This is the Marshall Hain post I referenced on Friday which I thought I’d repeat because a) the track is great, b) the post isn’t bad either, and c) I’m being lazy.

Marshall Hain’s song “Back To The Green” is an ode to escaping from the chaotic bustle of the big city to the peaceful green spaces of the countryside. Personally I’ve always thought the countryside was a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. Growing up in London made me the sort of person who has an existential crisis if I live too far from a tube station, and if I’d wanted a “country” experience I could always get that in the city anyway – from the spectacular vistas of Hampstead Heath to the herds of deer roaming Richmond Park, peacocks in Holland Park, boating on The Serpentine, or lazy summer Sundays watching a cricket match on Barnes Common. Besides, the problem with the country is the people that live there: Tories, rich arseholes from the city, and Daily Mail-reading reactionaries who look at you funny if you aren’t from “around here” or look different (believe me, I was an art student in Kent and know what it’s like to walk into a little country pub with a friend who had blue hair.)

But even this council-estate-raised city boy recognizes the subconscious attraction of the pastoral idyll; escaping the city’s cacophonous nightmare of traffic and other people’s cell-phone conversations for a picture-postcard village where the bells of an old stone church ring out through warm summer air, willow trees hang lazily over glistening streams, and rosy-cheeked children fly kites over sun-dappled green hills. Such fantasies are the warm baths of city-dweller imaginations.

Julian Marshall and Kit Hain are only known for the one song, the 1978 hit “Dancing In The City” which came from their debut — and only — album Free Ride. The single’s sensual synth-drummy groove isn’t much like the the rest of the record which is mostly modern adult pop in the jazzy mold of Steely Dan with the middle-class English smartness of 10cc. Unfortunately the album was a flop and is now out of print which is a shame as it’s rather good. The final track “Back To The Green” is a gorgeous ballad that ebbs and flows in an appropriately dreamy mood, languidly drifting along before building to a symphonic crescendo of strings and brass. Kit Hain has a lovely, clear-as-a-bell voice that makes me think of her as a well-spoken young lady who probably played netball at school (a thought I find vaguely erotic which I’m sure all the English boys reading this will understand.) It makes the idea of moving to the country quite a warmly appealing prospect – for a few moments anyway.

Download: Back to The Green – Marshall Hain (mp3)

Since I wrote this album has been reissued on CD.

Un Film De Saint Etienne

Those loveable popsters Saint Etienne have become quite the movie producers in recent years, having made three films about London in collaboration with director Paul Kelly. They’re hard to come by in the States so I’ve only seen the first one Finisterre, an impressionistic tribute to the city which I highly recommend.

Their new one How We Used To Live uses old footage from the BFI Library to tell the story of London’s past during the ‘New Elizabethan’ age from the 1950s to the Thatcher era — a sort of prequel to Finisterre — and looks absolutely marvelous.

The film has been selected to be part of the London Film Festival and lucky Londoners (or anyone in town at the time) can get to see it next month. I’m sure I shall see it myself eventually if it ever makes its way to this side of the pond in some form or other.

The Night Train

Bob Mazzer is an amateur photographer who’s been taking pictures on the London Underground for the past 40 years and his photos capture the rather grubby state of the Tube before the King’s Cross fire, the smoking ban, and the major upgrading and modernizing of the system that has happened in the past couple of decades.

The Tube these days is bright and polished compared to the old days of dimly-lit trains with wooden floors covered in cigarette butts and old stations where waiting for a train was like being in a dank Victorian dungeon. Not to mention the vending machines that never worked, I lost count of the amount of times I lost money in one of those things trying to buy a bar of chocolate.

Mazzer took most of his pictures late at night when the Tube was full of people on their way to or from an evening out and that’s how I like to remember the London Underground best; not as the stressful, overcrowded system where I had to squeeze like a sardine onto a train to work every day, but a subterranean shuttle to good times where you could also have a party on your way to a party.

Grotty though it was, I loved the Tube back then and some of my happiest memories of London happened on it at night (usually while drunk): going to a party with some mates and drinking Rum and Cokes that we mixed in plastic cups on the train (much more fun than just opening cans of beer), serenading some poor girls on the platform at Kennington with our rendition of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, and having an epic food fight on an empty carriage with takeaway KFC. Few nights out would be complete without also falling asleep on the train and waking up at the end of the line, thankfully I was usually just in time to catch the last train back the other way.

I also had several snogging sessions on the Tube but never on a packed carriage like this. The best thing about this photo is how nobody is paying attention to the necking couple.

Though he doesn’t live in London anymore Mazzer is still taking pics on the Tube and while it might be cleaner, safer, and more modern these days it’s still full of life and character because London is still London no matter how many of its rough edges get smoothed down.

Download: Last Train To Transcentral – The KLF (mp3)

What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com


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