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.
There were “No Ball Games” signs on my estate too which we ignored just like these kids, and if I had a penny for every time some old lady told me to “get yer hair cut!” I’d have enough to buy a quarter of cough candy. I’m surprised none of them deployed the deadly weapon that was “I know where you live, I’m telling your mum!”
Amazing colour film of London shot way back in 1927, though apart from the red of the buses the only colours in evidence seem to be grey and brown.
London still looked a lot like that until fairly recently. For most of my life St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, Tower Bridge, and every old building in the city were that same dirty, sooty colour and I think they all look a bit fake now since they’ve been cleaned up, as if the “real” buildings have been replaced by Disney versions.
I don’t think it’s the cheapest anymore, last time I had a portion of chips it cost me a pound — a pound! for a bag of chips! — and having fish with it will set you back a fiver in London, so it’s probably not the working-class staple it once was. There used to be a line going out the door of my local chip shop (which is still there!) every Friday night with people buying fish and chips for the whole family, that’d cost quite a few quid now.
But I suppose “cheap” is all relative, I still remember the day chips went up from 10p to 12p. My mum sent me and my sister to the chippie one night to get some chips for our tea, both of us clutching a 10p coin in our eager little hands, only to find when we got there that they had gone up in price and we had to go back home to get the extra money. You could say we were crying all the way from the chip shop. Ho ho.
Did you ever do this when you were a kid? Go into a chip shop right before they closed and ask “Got any chips left?” When they said “Yes” you shouted “Serves you right for cooking so many!” and then run out of the shop. Oh, what wits we were.
After my mother died my sister gave me a pile of old family photos to scan, among them this one of my mother (left) and her three younger sisters outside their Shepherd’s Bush council flat — the same flat my gran still lived in when I was a kid and didn’t leave until the early 70s when my grandfather died. I know exactly when the photo was taken because some helpful person (my grandmother I think judging by the handwriting) has written “Coronation Day” on the back which would make it Tuesday the 2nd of June, 1953 and my mother a mere 18 years old (though I think she looked younger when she was in her 30s). She’d already left school and was working at that point, despite getting several O-levels she didn’t stay on for A-levels because the family needed the extra wage, something I think she always regretted.
My mum told me that she watched the Coronation on television like 20 million other Brits but whether it was their own set or a neighbours I can’t remember. Coronation Day was a holiday (in typical English “holiday” fashion it rained all day) and with their pearl necklaces the eldest three all look a bit dressed up to go somewhere, it could have been a street party or maybe just because they were having their photo taken, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it was because they were going to “see” the Queen on television and thought they should put on their “best” for such an important occasion. As it was a Tuesday I assume my mother wouldn’t have gone out that evening but come the weekend you might have found her dancing at the Hammersmith Palais where, in those pre-rock and roll days, the music was provided by live big bands led by the likes of Billy Cotton and Joe Loss.
The Hammersmith Palais was also where she met my dad about 6 years later who, I imagine, at the time looked something like he does in this photo.
That’s my old man on the left with three of his mates (he also had three brothers) and I don’t know when this was taken but judging by the suits I’d place it sometime in the 1950s too. The thing I’ve always loved about this picture is how suave my dad looks, he seems so much more put-together and debonair than the others, his suit just that bit fancier and well-tailored and he’s even holding his drink rather rakishly. Back then he was known as a bit of a fancy-pants and was nicknamed “Duke” because he always wore suits with a red lining, an indication perhaps that after he married my mother he wouldn’t be satisfied being a cab driver and would eventually make for the sophisticated bright lights of the theatre.
It’s always strange seeing photos of your parents as teenagers (and yourself too) and old photos of people you know are unavoidably poignant and suffused with a sort of innocence because you can see their future and they can’t, and not just in the long-term. Like the characters in Mad Men they don’t know that the 1960s are coming to smash the conventions and assumptions they’ve been living by and in my parents case they happened just a little too late, being married with two kids by the time The Beatles’ first record came out. Who knows what would have happened if my mother didn’t have to leave school to get a job at 16 and share a little council flat bedroom with three sisters until she got married, or my dad discovered what he really wanted to do with his life before then?
I’m not any kind of transportation anorak who gets all swoony over buses and trains but I felt my heart sigh a little watching some of the lovely old documentaries now up at the The London Transport Museum website. Of particular interest is the wonderful All That Mighty Heart, a day-in-the-life film about London shot on a hot summer day in 1962 full of gleaming red buses driven by men with shiny Brylcreemed hair, pretty young housewives in modern new shopping centres, tennis at Wimbledon, cricket at Lords, kids enjoying a day at London Zoo and making sandcastles on the banks of the Thames (really!), all shot in vibrant you-never-had-it-so-good colour.
All That Mighty Heart is even more special to me as I was born in the summer of ’62 which according to my mother was a hot one and she often told me of the time my old man took her to see Lawrence of Arabia that summer and she had to sit through a three-hour film in a stuffy, non-air conditioned cinema while heavily pregnant with me. She suffered for me, you know.
Also worth a butchers is London On The Move made in 1970 showing a city that I actually remember, particularly those red tube trains with the green interior which brought a lot of happy memories flooding back.
So does this record, though not quite such old ones.