Monday, 27 September 2010

Charleroi is my darling

This article in The Guardian caught my attention on Saturday. I have visited most of the large towns and cities in Belgium, but was advised by my friend in Brussels never to go to Charleroi - 'Charleroi stinks' was all he would ever say. It seems now that this run down, ugly and depressed town is trying to attract the 'crap towns' tourist; this tour sounds fascinating and I would love to go on it.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

(Do the) Charleston

Last night to Charleston, the former Bloomsbury Group country retreat, for an event that's part of a short story festival: Iain Sinclair talking about the life and work of his friend J G Ballard. The train to Lewes from Victoria after work was unbelievably crowded, at Lewes a volunteer-run bus took me to the house - the talks take place in a barn - saw Will Self here last year.

A very interesting talk concentrating on the short stories (which I happen to be reading at the moment anyway). He mentioned Heart of Darkness and by coincidence this morning I read a story entitled 'A Question of Re-entry' which was a definite Ballardian homage to Conrad's tale. At the same time I've been dipping into an anthology of the 'best-ever' SF short stories and on the whole I would say that the Ballard volume despite being by a single author is actually better, certainly better written than most of the other stories.

There were many mentions of the copies of two lost Paul Delvaux paintings that Ballard had paid to be recreated by an artist who also produced his portrait - in the NPG but not on display. On a short trip to Dunkirk a few years back we popped along the coast to the Paul Delvaux Museum, a curious place in a deceptively large underground gallery. Everything you would need to see by the Belgian surrealist is on display - there are very few of his works in British galleries - I love his eerie paintings of railway stations and trains. Sinclair also included an anecdote about William Burroughs telling him that his 'ugly spirit' had been exorcised in a sweat lodge - the shooting of his wife was assuaged by this incident. He says that the house in Shepperton is still intact with all Ballard's possessions, apart from the archive, which went to the British Library (see earlier post) and would make an unusual property for the National Trust to purchase should the family decide to sell it - a nice thought.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Connaught Tunnel

The biggest project affecting the Subterranean City over the next few years is Crossrail. There's an interesting article on London Reconnections (see Down in the Dark: Crossrail,the Connaught Tunnel and Silvertown station) about the Connaught Tunnel, formerly on the North London line docklands section from Stratford to North Woolwich that's been closed since December 2006. It's to be reused for Crossrail as it makes its way from Canary Wharf to Abbey Wood.

Oil Tanks at Tate Modern

I noticed, when overlooking Tate Modern from the Blue Fin Building last Saturday, that work was going on to the south of the old power station. According to the Tate blog former massive underground oil tanks are being refurbished as art and performance spaces (see the blog entry Tate Transformers.

Friday, 24 September 2010

A Gipsy Funeral in Mitcham

In my attempt to delve deeper into some of the material in The Folklore of London I have recently tried to do a little more research into a colourful funeral that took place in Mitcham. This is what I originally wrote for the book in the unedited version (pp.42-43 after editing) – with some fresh authorial comments in brackets:

‘Gipsy funerals can be spectacular affairs. One of the most impressive took place in 1911 in the old churchyard of the Mitcham Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul [pictured above], for the burial of Sophie Kirpatsh, a Galatian gipsy princess who had lived on nearby Hilly Fields. [Galicia generally refers to the eastern half of the former Austrian province of Galacia – Galizien –the terms ‘Galicia’ and ‘Galacia’ are often interchanged; it is currently divided between Poland and the Ukraine] The Galatians, dressed in Cossack-style boots, bore her coffin to the church, with mourners walking both in front of and behind the coffin. Before being lowered into the ground the coffin was opened, displaying the corpse dressed in her finest clothes, with a necklace made of coins and a massive silver belt. The coffin also contained a piece of soap, a towel, a mallet and a flask of water – mourners dropped money into it as they danced around the grave, their faces plastered with mud, as was traditional.

Many of the mourners were coppersmiths from Eastern Europe – after the coffin had been lowered into the ground they poured rum onto it and drank some themselves, returning three days later to pour beer on the grave. Nine days after the funeral a feast was held and it was expected that a similar ceremony would be observed at the end of three, six and twelve months. It was also reported that on the day after the funeral an irate local licensee asked the verger if he could borrow a pick and shovel in order to open the coffin and remove some of the valuable contents, as compensation for alcohol consumed by the mourners and not paid for. Permission was not granted. The original iron headstone in the shape of a cross within a circle was inscribed ‘SOPHY’. According to a report written in 1978, the grave could still be seen beside the church, surrounded by railings and covered with a thick concrete slab, which had apparently helped thwart two attempts to rob the grave of its treasures. [Sources used were T. W. Thompson ‘The Ceremonial Customs of the British Gipsies’ Folklore, Vol. 24 No. 3. (1913), pp. 314-356, p.351 and London Folklore Group ‘Two Gypsy Funerals: Mitcham, 1912’ London Lore Vol. 1 Part 1 March 1978 p.7]

I could not find the time when writing the book to visit the churchyard and an email I sent to the church regarding the grave slab was never answered. A few weeks ago I finally managed to take a walk around Mitcham on a lovely sunny morning, during which I visited the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul. The church itself was locked, but I had a good look at the tombstones in the near vicinity of the building, searching in particular for any surrounded by railings; unfortunately I couldn’t find anything that fitted the description given above.

However, a search of Ancestry has revealed the registration of the death of a Sophie Karpatch at Epsom, Surrey in the period October-December 1911. Her age was given as 27 with a date of birth c.1884. As there are now more newspapers available to search online than there were even three years ago I have found two interesting articles from the Daily Mirror and Daily Express from October 1911 which provide us with more information and show that it was an important news story at the time:

Daily Mirror 14th October 1911 p.4

Strange Ceremonies Precede Burial Of Chief's Daughter

Clad in a scarlet dress, with new boots on her feet and her hair decorated with jewels and ribbons, Sophy Tchriron, daughter of the chief of the Hungarian gipsies encamped at Mitcham, lies dead in Carshalton Cottage Hospital. For some months past over 200 Hungarian and Bulgarian gipsies have lived at Beddington Corner, earning a peaceable living as coppersmiths and metalworkers. Tragedy has come upon them, for the chief's daughter - to them a princess of the blood - was taken suddenly ill early this week and has since died at the Carshalton Cottage Hospital. Picturesque and pathetic incidents have followed the passing away of Sophy, who was a good-looking young woman of twenty-seven.

When she felt sick the Hungarian Embassy was notified and a doctor was sent to her. But all he could do was to have her taken immediately to the hospital. Suffering from pneumonia, together with bloodpoisoning, she was conveyed to the infirmary, followed by men and women of the tribe. She objected to be put in a bed. "I have never slept in a bed," she said. When in bed Sophy begged for her pipe, as all the tribe—men, women and children—are smokers. She was allowed to smoke, and this eased her for some time. But, despite every attention that could he given her, she died early on the following morning. A messenger was sent to the camp bearing the sad news. Rushing from the camp came the dead woman's husband, her father and relations down to the hospital. Tchriron, the husband, on reaching the door of the hospital, grovelled on the ground and ate a handful of mud. He had to be restrained by his friends from eating more mud - a sign of intense grief and misery. The dead woman's father, bent on his knees, moaned pitifully.

For some hours this went on until the gipsies had to be firmly but gently turned away. Later in the day came twelve women of the camp dressed in scarlet with red muslin over their hair and decked out with ornaments. They carried with them three dresses, jewellery and ribbons to prepare the body of Sophy for burial. This ceremony took some time, the dead woman's hair being specially plaited and entwined with jewels. They were making their dead princess as gay and rich-looking as possible, according to their beliefs. Throughout this solemn ceremony all the women, curiously enough, smoked pipes and cigarettes, and even when they were moaning rarely forgot to smoke.

Then one of the men of the tribe arrived, carrying a new pair of boots he had just bought. These boots were placed on the deceased's feet to make her last journey more easy and comfortable. When The Daily Mirror yesterday visited the camp of the Hungarians the chief was very, solemnly hammering a copper bowl, while in the tents the women, wearing scarlet headdresses, were sitting on the ground mourning for their dead princess. Little children were sitting in groups, and almost all of them were smoking. A little girl of seven was solemnly puffing a cigarette, while a boy of the same age was smoking a pipe. All the tribe will attend the funeral.

Daily Express
Monday 16th October 1911 p.5

The funeral of Sophie Karpath, daughter of the chief of the Galician gipsies who are encamped near Mitcham, took place, at Mitcham Cemetery on Saturday amid quaint and picturesque rites. For twenty-four hours before the funeral the girl's body lay in state, clad in three new dresses, the outer one of scarlet. A silver girdle was round her waist, and strings of red coral and rows of gold coins were displayed about her corsage. There were rings on her fingers, gold earrings in her ears, and a necklace of twelve 100-franc pieces around her neck. Many jewels wore woven into her hair.

Soap and a comb were put into the coffin in order that she might have the wherewithal to make her toilette before entering into the Celestial Kingdom, and over all was thrown a cover of fine lace. The service was that of the Roman Catholic Church, and on the return of the mourners ashes, to represent the body, were placed in a hollow in the ground. Over these the tribe gathered, and there was much wailing and many mystic prayers.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Hastings Horror

Picked up a flyer yesterday advertising an evening at the estimable Electric Palace Cinema on 5th October intended to raise money for a proposed horror film set in the Old Town. It sounds an intriguing idea as the streets and twittens of the Old Town can certainly be atmospheric, if not particularly menacing, especially in the winter. The film is to be titled Flesh & Blood. As far as I can tell the director has made one previous feature Dead Wood - I haven't seen it. In my present financial situation I am in no shape to invest in a film but I might go along to the evening anyway, with a £20 note in hand.

Also noted that Jamie Oliver's latest Sainsbury's advert is filmed entirely in the Old Town - oh God, we're not going to be the next Hoxton & Shoreditch are we?

Monday, 20 September 2010

Open House Weekend

A busy weekend. On Saturday morning I signed 250 copies of the new edition of Subterranean City at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe and met a few of the people who decided to buy a copy; the number of people that turned up wanting to go on the train tours through the tunnel was phenomenal - I have been told that by someone who went on Sunday that the tours had been cancelled, presumably by an exasperated London Overground.

The energy I once had for Open House has dissipated considerably over the years and these days I indulge in a small number of hit and run visits (1st rule: no queuing) so I managed, in the afternoon, the picture library and mortuary in Rotherhithe and the Kirkcaldy testing Works and Blue Fin Building in Southwark Street. I had no intention of crossing north of the river, as everyone in London seemed to be out on the streets - plus the Pope was in town. The views from the 11th floor of the Blue Fin Building were impressive - see my picture - The Shard is rising with frightening rapidity. Evening to The Globe (first time for a play) for Henry IV Pt1 - I've loved it ever since we read it at school - I chose to stand in the second half and actually enjoyed it a lot more than when I was sitting on a hard bench during the first.

On Sunday on our way back to the seaside we fitted in a visit to Dulwich Picture Gallery (£4 instead of £9 thanks to Open House) for the Salvator Rosa exhibition. He is an artist who has intrigued me for many years - every major gallery you go to has one or two paintings by him - and this was a useful overview of his work. My favourites are his witchcraft paintings of which I had hoped there would be more here rather than the one I already knew from the National and a couple of others. He was a very early precursor of Romanticism with his rugged overpowering rocky landscapes - what was most interesting for me were his portraits, especially those representing Philosophy and Poetry and his late works on Fortune - one amusingly shows Fortune emptying the glittering contents of her cornucopia amongst farm animals and swine, his criticism of the Chigi Pope apparently.

Then on to Charlton House, somewhere I've wanted to visit for years, a large Jacobean house on the edge of a park in deepest South London. Some lovely plasterwork inside on ceilings and fireplaces and not nearly as shabby as I had feared; it's used as a community centre and for weddings these days. Photo above of a fireplace with scenes from Perseus and Medusa (or 'Modusa' as the Open House leaflet put it, a 'bore's' head was also mentioned). Didn't have time to visit the nearby Maryon Wilson Park, where much of one of my favourite films Blow Up was filmed.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Kensington Talk

A very impressive 190 people showed up on Thursday for the talk on underground London in the Kensington Central Library Lecture Theatre - seating capacity 162, so there were some sitting on the floor or standing at the back and by the door. The subject is of perennial interest and surprisingly I haven't done that many talks on this subject over the last 10 years; very few of the other handful of writers on Underground London seem to do talks.

I thought it went very well, the equipment was all set up and working when I arrived which is how I like it - there was even free wine. Sold a few books, but not as many as the large crowd might have indicated - however my cast iron rule is: if it's a free event most people don't want to spend any money on anything. When they've already paid for a ticket they don't seem to mind spending some more money on books.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Hackney Podcast

At the Illumini Talk last week I was approached by Francesca Panetta from the Hackney Podcast, which I have to say I had never previously heard of, but then again, as I haven't lived in London for 6 years now, there's a huge amount I'm not aware of. Anyway I had a chance to listen to some of the podcasts today and they are mostly interesting and very well put together: the water and coffee are particularly good .

One of my blind spots - and this is not particularly directed at these podcasts - is that I find it difficult to get really fascinated by much of the subjective 'micro-history' aspects pursued nowadays by some local historians of a particular area; my books tend to concentrate on the bigger picture of London as a whole, or at least the central part. Having said that there are some excellent studies out there of particular buildings or of some minor aspect of social history, but life is short and there is a lot of other stuff to try to investigate. That's the reason I stopped buying that admirable venture Smoke magazine after a few issues, I just couldn't summon up the enthusiasm any more for articles on bus journeys. I even get bored with some of Iain Sinclair's more recent psychogeographical obsessions - I found Edge of the Orison especially tough to negotiate in this respect, although the much longer Hackney book I mostly found engrossing.

In the latest podcast on coffee I was alerted to the presence of a new trendy coffee house in (where else?) Shoreditch called Penny University, which is a great name, based as it is on one of the original terms for a coffee house. Sadly it seems that the only resemblance to an 18c institution is the seating arrangement at a large wooden table, otherwise discussion appears to be limited to an assessment of the gourmet coffees on offer. Obviously a reading of my London Coffee Houses book would make a suitable accompaniment to this broadcast; I would dispute, by the way, that Hackney led the way in introducing coffee houses - the earliest in London were in the City and around Fleet St and Covent Garden. A listen to some of these podcasts is definitely recommended.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Steve Severin in Hastings

Just read in the local paper that Steven Severin is playing here on Monday 18th October at St Mary in the Castle the atmospheric venue at the heart of Pelham Crescent. Siouxsie and the Banshees were amongst my favourite groups, one of the first punk bands I got into - I think that The Scream and Juju are great records, the latter being said to have birthed goth. I last saw them in St James's Church Piccadilly many years ago and have lost touch with their later music. A few weeks back I watched a dvd of a concert from the Juju era with the peerless John McGeogh on guitar and got really excited again, very powerful. I knew that Severin composed film scores these days but haven't got any of his records, he cultivates a 'wise hermit' image - the soundtrack for this latest project is for the Cocteau film Le Sang d'un poete, which I don't think I've seen, might have been on a bill at the Scala many years back. We did a bit of a Cocteau tour in the south of France a couple of years ago, visiting his gallery and places that he decorated. This concert could be interesting, but I wonder how many people will go?

Heritage Open Day in Hastings

Had a bit of time today to visit a couple of places as part of the Heritage Open Days. Could only manage Hastings, so we went to a walled garden that once belonged to a large house up by the Law Courts - much larger than I was expecting and sporting some very impressive sunflowers, a favourite with the Victorians. Later went to Marine Court hoping for a glimpse inside but instead heard an interesting talk on the seafront about the history of the building (see Banksy post) the largest residential block in Europe and the tallest in Britain at the time of its construction (late 1930s). Apparently Pevsner wrote that it was 'an affront to the seaside' but I like it, even though it has been much abused -UPVC window plague and balconies enclosed - could do with a lick of paint and the rear section is a disappointment. Good to see some interesting shops opening up on the ground floor again. Weather incredibly hot for September.

Illumini Talk

The talk on underground London, one of the events for the Illumini show in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, went very well. Yes, Hoxton and Shoreditch are even more trendy than ever, as I found out as I walked up Shoreditch High Street on the previous night to attend the preview. There was a long queue of hundreds of people blocking most of the pavement so I had to walk in the road - I assumed that a new nightclub had opened or The Libertines were playing a secret show - before the reality dawned on me that they were waiting to get into the Illumini exhibition. I overheard a young man saying to his companions, "Yeah, they're opening up the secret tunnels under the town hall"; actually they are only disused basements and cellars, but word gets around so quickly these days thanks to mobiles and Twitter that a lot of the crowd probably thought it was going to be a huge party. I managed to convince the bouncer on the door that I was a speaker and jumped the queue, otherwise I wouldn't have got in.

The art itself was the very mixed bag (my pics above with flash, these rooms were actually very dark) I was expecting and the rammed nature of the venue made it difficult to see a lot of it - a smattering of predictable Hammer Horror scenarios - some of the more interesting pieces used light - one that I liked consisted of a heap of broken crockery with a bath in the middle in which a bull's head was reflected - the Minotaur in the Labyrinth? I donated my own author's copy of the new book for the raffle and tried to make my way around - the bar was impossible to reach, many Goths in attendance of course and in certain places it was stiflingly hot - I lasted around half an hour before I had to get out for some fresh air.

At the talk on the following evening I got around 45 people and sold 6 copies of the new book, literally just arrived out of the container (there had been a delay unloading it) - one rotter decided to steal a copy when our backs were turned. The event finishes on Wednesday.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A Very Irregular Head

Just finished A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman, a biography of Syd Barrett lent to me by my father-in-law. Well worth reading, especially as he offers a revisionist Syd history, investigating a number of 'classic' stories that seem to have no basis in fact (eg the Brylcreem and Mandrax story) and delving into the literary influences on his distinctive lyrics. Chapman deals very sensitively with the 'lost years' when Barrett retreated totally from fame, living quietly in Cambridge, that is until idiots began ringing on his doorbell and following him around. It is very thorough in places, although at times I thought I was reading a collection of lit crit (it's always a problem when 'music' journalists concentrate on the words as they often lack the knowledge and vocabulary to deal with the music).

The influence of laptop guitarist Keith Rowe of AMM on Syd is given prominence - I saw AMM supporting Faust a few years back - together with the nonsense tradition of English verse and stories. Many names from the time or influential figures are given mini biographies but others are mentioned with the assumption that we know who they were - do many people today know who Alex Trocchi was?

It seems that almost nothing is known about the time that Syd spent at Chelsea Cloisters in the late 70s prior to walking back to Cambridge (the John Clare connection is interesting here, Iain Sinclair wrote about it in Edge of the Orison). Certain topics are almost totally ignored - I wanted to know more about the recording of Saucerful of Secrets and Iggy the girl who appears naked on the sleeve of The Madcap Laughs.

I'm sure I'm not alone in finding Sydworld a disturbing place to inhabit - 3 days of listening to his music was enough for me, wonderful though some of it is. I have his Pink Floyd stuff plus the box set that came out a few years ago containing his solo material - I love the fractured songs and the bizarre wordplay but after a while a darkness begins to descend on this listener as he hears the well gradually run dry. The total renunciation of fame and fortune (although David Gilmour made sure he received his considerable royalties) is an intriguing example; in the age of the internet it is becoming increasingly difficult to live a private, reclusive life and I admire those who do.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Banksy in St Leonards

Last month a work by Banksy appeared on some steps leading to the beach at St Leonards. We went to see it today and I took a photograph (above). It isn't far from Marine Court, the subject of an article by Iain Sinclair in yesterday's Guardian. Surprisingly perhaps the council has covered it with a perspex sheet, which has already been defaced with graffiti, although by the time of our visit it had been cleaned up again.