Friday, 29 January 2010

London Loves.....The Night

by Gregg Morgan
(author of the If I Were Built blog)

"Beasts of prey and great cities alone in nature remain awake when darkness comes; the one in search of death, the other in search of an extra hour of life" HV Morton

London wears winter well. Why? London loves darkness is why. This sprawl of space and ideas comes to shuddering go when the sun packs up and heads south. In London the stars don’t come out at night in the sky, they come out down here - in the wonder of possibilities. We’ve given up our view of the heavens to look for them in this City. This city that can give or take a night’s sleep. London loves the night as it desires to extract just a little more from life than Nature intended.

The daylight hive of the capital, The Square Mile, dies a lonely nocturnal death – save a few bankers wasting electricity under motion-sensitive lights contemplating deficits/bonuses and probably China – as vitality courses into the surrounding streets of London. From the gaudy doorways of Soho, the thunder-dome of Camden, the meta-hip of Dalston, the unapologetic trash of Shoreditch to the celebs, paps and wannabe-papped of Mayfair, South Ken and Notting Hill, London is, in Ginsberg’s words, ‘’burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’’.

Night is a time for pleasure, for friends, pubs, lights, lovers, music, secrets, sin, architecture, cabaret, clubs, gigs, restaurants, football, theatre, film, food, drugs, raves, house parties, convenience stores, markets, strangers, celebrities and snappers, for people. London sits at its desk and sofa on groundhog days waiting to find a story out in the gloom. Does the city ever look as majestic as when it is lit up at night? Cycling over London Bridge at night, Tower Bridge a beacon of belonging, these are the kind of moments that make you realise why we live here. Indeed cycling - another London love - is at its finest when the moon is in the sky. The streets are all but emptied of the foes of pedestrians and traffic and a serene peddle becomes sublime. I can heartily recommend a moonlit cycle from Hackney to Smithfield Market. Should you wish to distract yourself with a trip to Fabric or the superb Jerusalem Tavern when you get there then that is up to you…but the architecture-in-motion of the City, the Barbican, Clerkenwell or whatever route you choose to take is phenomenal. Plus at the end of it you get to wander around one of London’s nocturnal delights, Smithfield Meat Market. Even in darkness the capital is concerned about its pounds of flesh. Pescetarian gadabouts might like to set a course for the pre-dawn marvel of Billingsgate Fish Market.

Much like Huey Lewis didn’t need no credit card to ride the Love Train, you don’t need two wheels to enjoy this ride though. London by-night is the perfect setting for the budding flanêur– be it endless quiet lit nooks and crannies, or centuries of grandeur, innovation, tribute and awe, or just the incremental timeline of the skyline – all of it set to an almost peace made starkly precious by the contrast of the light-induced hubbub. It might be for the brave-hearted, and not for the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, but a walk through the city at night is like a long reviving exhalation as London meditates before the chug and onrush of tomorrow. You might even bump into Will Self. Never before have I experienced such calmness cocktailed with a twist of media-induced fear as when walking home at night in Hackney. And never does tomorrow feel further away as when you see it born. Watch the sunrise here - this City that twinkled long before you, will rise and fall long after you - and time will freeze for you…until the early/late train/bus yawns by anyway.

It’s not all fun and games of course. What of the army of workers permanently defying nature to provide for those who only rebel on a temporary basis. For starters the glorious and undervalued night-bus driver, forever offering a long tunnel home despite having to put up with this racket. Praise be to the N38 and N55, always there when the bicycle isn’t and booze might have been. So we can get home but who will feed us? I recently interviewed one waiter from the 24-hour Turkish eatery, Somine, on Kingsland Road. This chip-on-shoulder-free gent had been happily helping to feed Dalston through the night for five years. Five years of working 7pm to 7am! That the man was happily married with kids should serve as a jolt to all our attempts at finding peace, love and understanding with all these nights to call our own. Then there is the hallowed convenience store. My local? The Turkish-owned shop on the corner of Lower Clapton Road and Clapton Passage, a true godsend, it’s never closed. Every part of London has one as the night can no longer deny us milk, cigarettes, chocolate or beer. Then there are the street cleaners, the bakers, radio hosts and producers, taxi drivers, those bankers looking east, doctors and nurses, paramedics, police, fire-fighters, newspaper deliverers and of course bagel vendors plus many many more besides that make London by daylight tick over.

I’ll leave you with the words of Darren Hayman and Hefner. From the glorious ode to London that is ‘We Love The City’, I still think it’s one of the best opening lines I’ve ever heard and kind of true to this day…

‘This is London not Antarctica so why don’t the tubes run all night?’

Now it’s over to you for your London love, what are your starry London remembrances? Any night-buses of note or secret stargazing vantage points? Or do you know any unsung heroes of the night that make London love the dark?

Friday, 22 January 2010

London Loves.....Foxes

by Lu-Dos-Tres
(creator of
the crossfrontier blog )

London loves foxes and foxes love London. They’re everywhere, from sprawling suburbs dotted with parks, to the concrete jungles of inner city estates.

I remember the first time I saw a fox. I couldn’t have been very old, maybe ten. They were quite rare, strictly nocturnal animals who are, or more to the point, were very shy. In the early nineties, you would have been lucky to catch a glimpse of one. They seemed as wild as wolves and yet harmless as cats. Afraid to approach humans, they would dart off at the first sight of us. Yet their reclusiveness only made them more intriguing. The 'wily old fox' saying casts them as the embodiment of cunning. Indeed, what could be more cunning than the fox; a cute little animal that strikes only to eat pet rabbits under the cover of darkness when no one is looking?

But the funny thing is, no one ever blamed foxes for their pillaging. They were untouchable. If a rabbit was eaten, it was the fault of whoever left the latch open on the rabbit hutch. Foxes had somehow managed to muster political clout in (sub)urban households, and even right up to the upper echelons of the Houses of Parliament.

Seriously. By the end of the nineties, the country was up in arms as people came out on to the streets to defend foxes. The citizens of London in particular, protested, en masse, at the inhumane sport of fox hunting. They derided its cruelty to foxes and the pleasure it gave to old-fashioned country gentry. In turn, country folk descended on London to defend their way of life, and decry city people as ignorant. It was a heated polemic, featuring physical violence and police arrests. It finally ended with the outright banning of fox hunting in 2004.

OK, so maybe the ban was not strictly down to the cunning of the fox. But, it must be said, that their popular image definitely played a part. What if, for example, it had been rabbit-killing rats that the hounds and huntsmen chased down and savaged; would we have protested then? No we wouldn’t.

Foxes seem to know about the media game and working it to their own ends. Their media savviness can even be traced back to the 60s. They worked their way into the dictionary, with ‘foxy’ a slang synonym for ‘sexually appealing, exciting, attractive.’ You’ve got to admit that was a masterstroke by the fox’s PR people. The definition has endured the test of time and has been propounded by artists such as Foxy Brown (pictured right), and more recently the Fleet Foxes – not that they’re sexy.

Its penetration doesn’t stop at the English language or the music industry either. Like most people, my first image of the fox came not from a real fox at all but a cartoon fox; Disney’s Robin Hood film. Remember? Robin Hood as a fox, King John a Lion, the King’s soldiers all rhinos. Classic. I loved it.

Then there were the Animals of Farthing Wood! Featuring on children’s television from 1992 to 1995. Another classic. Again the foxes leading the show were moral crusaders against… erm... the baddies of the forest?! Or something…

Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox. Where we all rooted for the fox to triumph.

Fellow brethren of my generation, I think we have been mightily brainwashed.

Oh well.

The fox is having the last laugh. Immune to hunts in the country, they’ve come to urban centres in search for more excitement. Fox immigration is high. Local communities all over the capital have reported rises in fox numbers.

Inevitably, fox crime has got worse. I don’t know about you, but when I was a boy, I never saw rubbish bins half emptied out in the street. Now I see the remains of last night’s supper strewn across the front lawn, week in week out.

I’m no expert fox criminologist, but I blame it on the young‘uns. The fox cub hoodies. The first generation to have grown up free of the fear of the hunt, and the associated discipline that that enforces. Quite an astonishing behavioural trait adaption.

They’re certainly not shy anymore, that’s for sure. Only last month, a fox was spotted shooting down the escalator at Walthamstow Tube Station. TFL ticket inspectors did not let it continue its journey… it blatantly hadn’t topped up its Oyster card.

It did, however, come coolly came back up the escalator, where Kate Gray managed to capture this magnificent photo on her mobile:

Photo: copyright Barcroft Media

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

London Loves.....Music (pt II)

Hello London lovers,

Just a very quick part II on music; my favourite subject in the entire world. Apart from sex. But I'll save that for another blog.

Anybody who knows me knows that I'm a little bit obsessed with this Lily Allen tune. I also absolutely adore this original video. The one where she rides around London on her little bike. It fits the bouncy, Brazilian-tinged, sunshine music perfectly. God knows why her record company decided she needed a more flashy, mainstream, over produced video when the song became a hit.

There are many London-themed songs. London by The Smiths, London Loves (obviously) by Blur, London Calling by The Clash, 'A' Bomb In Wardour Street by The Jam, I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea by Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Hairdresser On Fire by Morrissey, Dagenham Dave by The Stranglers, Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks, London Bye Ta Ta by David Bowie, It's A London Thing by Scott Garcia (still sounding brilliant) and of course the seminal London Is The Place For Me by Lord Kitchener.

But Lily's 'LDN' is my favourite of them all because it is so ultimately positive about the capital in the face of the underlying terrors creeping beneath the shiny Cockney veneer and it brings a smile to my face whenever I hear it.

...One thing I still have trouble with however. At 1min 47secs in the video above (and again repeated in the outro starting at 2mins 25secs, Ms Allen can be heard underneath the main vocal singing (or rather listing) in 4-4 time, a quiet, half-spoken ode to different areas of London. I only actually noticed this when listening to it through headphones recently. On a stereo it's almost inaudible. Even on headphones it's difficult to correctly identify all of the place names. I've got most of them but could do with some help. If you know what she says, please tell me!

Here's what I think she says, correct me if I'm wrong:
Enfield (could be Earlsfield?), Dalston, Stockwell, Clapton, Soho, Ladbroke Grove (could be Lambeth, Bow?). Camden, Brixton, Hackney, Tottenham, Chiswick, Old Kent Road (could be Aldgate, Bow?)

Whatever she says, it's genius. Listen to it and listen to it loud. Then listen to it again, just to be on the safe side. x

Sunday, 10 January 2010

London Loves.....Music

Music is the most personalised and subjective of all the cultural art forms. (A fact which I hope is demonstrated by my list of favourites at the end of this blog - please comment back with your own lists).

Whether it’s the easy-listening/strangled-cat noises emanating from the ITV studios during episodes of ‘X Factor’ or the majesty of Congolese rumba. The hissing snarl of Siouxsie and The Banshees or the prosaic soundtrack to the film Titanic. Eclectic febrile techno beats or the immortal genius of The Beatles’ 1964-1970 output. Everybody out there finds something to love in music...

In London we have been somewhat spoilt by the quality and breadth of offerings we’ve been given over the years. But what strikes me most about music scenes in London are the elements of cultural crossover characterising them. Nowhere else, barring New York, do we see such divergence of taste and cultural meaning. Most of the crowds you see spilling out of drum’n’bass raves at Fabric on Sunday mornings at 6am are middle class white kids, perhaps studying Politics at LSE. Now drum’n’bass was not originally invented for middle class white Politics undergrads. But try telling them that…

The same could be said of the reggae and ska scenes in London in the 70s.

However, while crossover is frequent and fluent in the capital, it is not a 'given'. There have been scenes, deeper and darker within the London ‘underground’, which the middle classes would love to have penetrated but simply could not. The UK Garage scene of the late 1990s/early 2000s was perhaps the last real musical genre innovation the world has seen. It transformed House music into something all-together more challenging; rhythmically, lyrically and culturally. Blossoming on pirate radio and flourishing in the kind of Stratford, Tottenham or Elephant & Castle rave venues the mainstream media do not publicise; Garage remained a scene entrenched in working class culture. Characterised like all London scenes by the fashion, drugs, language, attitudes and behaviours that grew up around it, Garage quickly moved (regrettably) away from the skunk, champagne, designer labels, party atmosphere and Croydon facelifts it began with, down a path of So Solid influenced crack cocaine, guns, bling, cars and gang violence. Yet some of the white-label records cut in that era are unquestionable classics and will live on strong in the memory until one day the Garage revival returns or the template is used to create another groundbreaking movement.

The era in time we currently occupy has diversified the range of music we can identify with and claim. On New Year’s Eve, at a considerably artistic party, alongside 60’s R’n’B and contemporary electro, DJ sets also included cheesy 80s pop classics like Erasure’s ‘A Little Respect', Tiffany’s ‘I Think We're Alone Now' and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’. Now, back in the mid-90s when we were all obsessed with our cool reputations and kicking against what had gone before, playing such songs at a trendy party, as opposed to say Suede, Nirvana or Happy Mondays would have cleared a room in seconds and led to permanent social ostracism. Nowadays, you can go to the trendiest bar in Shoreditch at 1am on a Friday night and dance to Hall & Oates’ 'Maneater'. This is a wonderful thing and we are lucky to be blessed with the luxury of hindsight and retrospect.

You’ll have noticed most of this blog concentrates on music of the past. I do not apologise for this and won’t even begin to talk about the current scene. I’ll leave that to the contemporary music publications.

I began this piece by saying music is purely personal. In order to demonstrate this, I will keep my heartfelt pronouncements to a minimum and instead resort to a fun little game we all love to play which illustrates the individuality of musical taste. I’d like you to all join in at home and play along. Below is a list which I have filled in. Simply copy and paste it into the comments box filling in your own answers. I’m handing it over to you. If you play along it makes this blog a whole lot more interesting. If you don’t, well, you only have yourselves to blame! Ciao for now….

First song you ever heard as a child
'Our House’ by Madness

First single you ever bought
‘Love Changes Everything’ by Climie Fisher (on 7” vinyl from Woolworths on Junction Road, Archway. I don’t know how this came about, and to this day I still don’t know who Climie Fisher are. I am neither proud nor ashamed of this purchase but I do see this in some ways as a confession).

First album you ever bought
(Some internal debate here). It was either ‘Whitney’ by Whitney Houston or ‘Faith’ by George Michael. As ‘Whitney’ was released a few months earlier I’m going to go with that. On tape cassette, obviously. But not from Woolworths this time, from Our Price (remember that?!)

Your top 3 albums of all time
The Beatles – Revolver
The Smiths – The Smiths LP
The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed

Your top 3 songs of all time
(Subject to frequent change. But currently...)
The Smiths – Ask
Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights
Prince Buster – Ten Commandments

Worst song ever recorded
‘What’s Up’ – Four Non Blondes

Worst song lyrics ever
"We came in spastic. Like tameless horses" (Billy Joel – ‘Saigon Nights’ - yes, he said the word 'spastic' on a pop record)

Your ‘nostalgia’ tune
This is always difficult. Can I have two? It’s my blog....I’ll have three!

Direstraits – Brothers In Arms (title track)
Vanilla Ice – Ice Ice Baby
R.E.M – Radio Song

And there you have it. So, what are yours…?

Saturday, 2 January 2010

London Loves.....Berlin

Happy New Year. Happy new decade. Happy new life. Happy holidays. Happy new blog.

Apologies for my extended absence. It’s been a month since the last London Loves. I haven’t been idle.
In that time I turned 30, was made redundant from my job and then re-hired (within the space of a week), had laser eye surgery (watch this space) and, it being the Yuletide (whatever that actually means), ate/drank/consumed/laughed/cried much more than one does for the entire rest of one’s annus. (I said annus not anus. It’s Latin. The Queen said it once, remember? Everyone thought she was cool and hilarious.)

Also in the past month I visited the most amazing city. Which I shall now eulogise about.

To celebrate my coming of age. Well, at least my coming of age thirty, I took five of my friends to Berlin for a weekend of revelry. It’s safe to say we had an incredible time. It’s difficult not to have a good time in Berlin. While Londoners are never shy about praising other parts of the world, this city deserves particular mention as it reminds us Londoners that London is not entirely the focal point of the universe we often assume it is and, while London is still the greatest city on earth, we can still learn a thing or two from our neighbours.

The overriding fact that sticks in my mind is the liberalism of Berlin. In no other capital city have I felt such a lack of inhibition. No ridiculous ‘no alcohol’ rule on tube trains, the vast majority of bars and clubs we visited did not enforce the smoking ban, we saw very few police officers, at a football match we attended home and away fans mingled sitting next to each other and celebrating goals openly without any fear of reprisals, nobody objects to you starting off your day with Glühwein mit Schuß (Mulled wine with a shot of rum, whisky or Amaretto), in fact alcohol generally is very cheap and the culture of drinking is far more happy and relaxed than it can be in London. People just being their natural selves. Like Parisians, but less vain and arrogant. (Sorry, Parisians. You know I love you. x)

The general sense is of a fine blend of party town and tradition. And what fine traditions. Sausages to die for. Beer to die for. Massive Pretzel bread type things to die for. But enough about food (one probably shouldn’t write a blog when hungry or it may turn into a culinary review).

The historic buildings are stunning. One wonders how any of it survived the end of the war. At times you feel ‘this is what Rome should look like’. Classical, monumentalist, epic in grandeur, composition and size. The Olympicstadion, for example, is unrivalled by any football stadium I have been to, including the San Siro, the new Wembley or the so-called Theatre of Dreams. Approaching the stadium, still very much as Hitler planned it to look in 1936, one is essentially approaching a coliseum. The two columns 100 metres high supporting the Olympic rings. Lights shining through them to add to the majesty. The grounds contain the old swimming pool and other Olympic buildings kept intact yet seemingly unused. Unlike Rome, one is not disappointed by this coliseum when one enters its vast cavity. One is instead awed and daunted by the sheer size (75,000 capacity), the genius of design, the vastness.

The history of Berlin is staggering. During the course of a five hour walking tour (which was only meant to last 3 hours. In the snow) we paused to stand on the spot, now a non-descript car park, where Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels family killed themselves in 1945 as the Soviets approached. We saw the remaining sections of the oppressive wall and heard the horrific stories of separation, desperation and death it brought about. We saw the stunning Brandenburg Gate (quite a good place to hold a night rally apparently). We saw where the Nazis burnt the books. We saw the controversial, beautiful, beguiling, undulating and deceptively capacious Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, built in 2005. Across the road, within site of the memorial we noticed a glittery, shiny sign with the word ‘PLAYBOY’, embossed in pink writing. Wandering over to investigate we realised the famous pornography company was setting up for a party that evening. Sadly we weren’t invited. It was however a neat summation of Berlin’s modernism directly adjacent to memorialism.

We also saw the balcony where Michael Jackson dangled his little baby out of the window (was it called ‘Blanket’ or did I dream that up?!), but we don’t have time to go into that now…

As well as the sheer beauty of classicism, the East of Berlin has its own kind of beauty. Clearly former Soviet Bloc in its uncomplicated layout and basic architectural design; industrialism, graffiti and railway tracks rule supreme here. Yet, I noticed that while London revels in erecting horrible, already dated modern buildings for apartments, shops and office blocks, creating a hideous juxtaposition with the Victorian splendour, Berlin had far better taste. Any new, flashy buildings there were did not hid behind the timid pretence of timelessness which has characterised British urban town planning since the 1980s, but rather embraced their kitsch plasticity, their fundamental use as platforms for sponsors, adverts and logos, their unashamed nod to capitalism.

Kitsch and colossal are themes running through the heart of Berlin. Summed up in the contrast between say the CCCP Bar in Mitte near Prenzlauberg and the Tresor nightclub. The former set up like somebody’s living room, very arty, playing on Soviet chic, a wonderful local DJ spinning a mix of turbo-folk, Cuban house beats and what could only be described as Arabic techno. The toilet almost a pastiche of the Beggar’s Banquet LP cover. A Chechen war criminal holding court, chatting up young students and rolling joints on the table. The latter, Tresor, a magnificent club, situated, as most Berlin night clubs are, in a huge disused factory or power station or warehouse, standing alone in a fairly industrial/urban decay/wasteland looking part of town one feels like one is entering the very concept of what a club should be. The tech-house was out of this world. If that’s what Tresor was like, with its relaxed door policy, I can only imagine the delights of Berghain. We were warned off Berghain several times because of its erratic, random entrance/denial ratio. Widely regarded as one of the best clubs in the world, the door staff refuse or permit entry to punters on a whim (or depending on whether you speak German or not). We heard a story from a guy who once witnessed at firsthand two German supermodels in front of him in the queue being turned away. The sound system is apparently unrivalled. Next time I visit I have promised myself a visit. Maybe not with a group of 6 lads.

All in all a quite amazing city. Friendly, witty people speaking perfect English (but do at least make the effort to spreche auf Deutsch bitte). Beautiful people. Long legged women. Stylish, tasteful fashions. Great cars (a mix of state of the art BMWs and 1960s Eastern European manufactured unidentifiable cool little vehicles). A beautiful river (always the hallmark of a great city).

One thing though, if you do visit Berlin in mid December. Wrap up warm. It’s fucking freezing.