Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Euston, Leigh has a problem

Acclaimed film director Mike Leigh walked into the room. Leigh, who directed Another Year (2010), stood almost dwarfed by the lectern. Dressed more for Paddington than Piccadilly, Leigh wore a thin, bottle green jacket hung over a chocolate brown corduroy shirt with slate grey cord trousers. 
   The West End room quickly filled with polite people and mild confusion. After all, Leigh's Piccadilly audience had come to listen to a film director speak about architecture at an arts event hosted by the Geological Society. 
   Leigh talked lovingly about two London buildings that featured prominently in his life; the British Museum, that resplendent must-do temple for tourists, and the long departed old Euston Station with its brash, classical Doric Arch, erected in 1836 but cruelly demolished in the 1960s with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's sanction.
   On one of several entertaining digressions from his written script, Salford-born Leigh said the old Victorian-built Euston - the southern terminus of the West Coast Main Line - with its spectacularly decorated great hall, became Manchester's unofficial "embassy in London". 
   "I can still smell the steam trains when I visit Euston," said Leigh. "I ate my first curry in nearby Drummond Street."
   Leigh also recalled the barber's shop with great mirrors and marble sinks under Euston's Platform Six. "The barbers were nothing if not aggressive," said Leigh. "I was a drama student and went in for a haircut. Very inoffensively, I said to the barber, a great big fellow with tattooed arms, 'not too much off the back, please'.
   "The barber said to me, 'Don't fuckin' tell me how to cut hair! I was fuckin' cutting hair before your fuckin' Dad was born!...Shut up!'"
   That Euston barber wouldn't have been too impressed with Leigh's trademark hang dog look. Leigh's face is framed by a curly white beard with a bushy moustache concealing his top lip like ivy sprawling over a balcony. The barber might've preferred Leigh's energetic spinning of a good yarn. 
   Leigh avoided ranting about the newer Euston Station, built in the 1960s and dwarfed by Network Rail's former Orwellian HQ, a dark towering monstrosity known even to its staff as the 'Black Tower'. Instead, Leigh recited a much-loved quote from Richard Morrison, writing in The Times about the newer Euston most of us now recognise: "Even by the bleak standards of sixties' architecture Euston is one of the lustiest concrete boxes in London devoid of any decorative merit, seemingly concocted to induce maximum angst from passengers and a blight on surrounding streets.
   "The design should never have left the drawing board, if indeed it was ever on a drawing board! It gives the impression of having been scribbled on the back of a soiled paper bag by a thuggish android raging against humanity and with a vampyric hatred of sunlight."
   Leigh's eyebrows danced up and down. His forehead furrowed frequently like an exposed geological fault, fitting as we were all scrunched inside the Geological Society. At this point, I remembered that ditched chunks of Euston's Doric Arch were fished out of the River Lea's Prescott Channel in 2009.
   Leigh ended his talk where his life in theatre and film began. Just over 50 years ago, in September 1960, Leigh began his scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on Gower Street, just around the corner from Euston Station. 
   "I stepped through the Doric Arch at Euston on a very special occasion. I'd come to London for good," recalled Leigh. "I also embraced the city that I was to love."

Films directed by Mike Leigh include Another Year (2010), Secrets and Lies (1996) and Vera Drake (2004).
Leigh delivered his talk, London's Unnoticed Gemsat the Geological Society, Piccadilly, London, W1 on Monday 24 January 2011, part of Critics Choice, London's Most Important Building, an element of the Architecture Programme of the Royal Academy of Arts. 
Other speakers who will talk about their narratives about London places include Will Self, Antony Gormley, and Monica Ali.

Paul Coleman, London, January 2011

Monday, 24 January 2011

Letter from London, January 2011

This month's London overview from Paul Coleman, London correspondent.

The year 2011 began with Mayor Boris Johnson announcing that visitors to London will see a huge, aqua-marine blue cockerel placed on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. 
I suppose the mega-cockerel confirms London welcomes bizarre artistic ideas. An assessment of world cities by British Council researchers declared London is the most "open" city, even ahead of New York, chiefly because the capital's businesses find it easy to hire foreign labour. 
   Migrants enjoy good health services and education, the researchers claimed. London is also relatively safe. Many Londoners aren't convinced though about the dubious benefits of foreign labour - as it's mainly cheap labour. 
   Foreign or home-grown bankers in the City of London are also bagging further huge bonuses despite creating havoc throughout the economy thanks to their irresponsible institutional gambling with our deposits. Instead of making the bankers pay for the massive budget deficit they've caused, a coalition government is making ordinary people pay through imminent public spending cuts to education, health and police services. 
    Unemployment is rising. Workers over 50 are already being culled at a faster rate than their younger counterparts by many of London's 32 boroughs. Businesses can't take on new staff as the banks, bailed out by taxpayers, are refusing to extend new or existing credit.
   The coalition's health 'reforms' are set to prise open the fragile yet beloved National Health Service to unfettered price competition by private suppliers and to European Union competition law. Some fear state-run hospitals will go bust.
   Decent homes are priced beyond the range of most working people. Few socially rented homes are being built. Private rents are rising. Tenants seek flatmates through 'speed flat-mating'. Hostels face closure. More homeless people struggle against the winter cold on West End streets outside properties owned by over-leveraged mortgagees who can no longer repay their colossal loans.
Is London safe? Yes, definitely, on most streets, in most areas. However, counter-terrorist sources inside Britain's security services, based at Thames House, raised the terror threat level to "severe", implying a terror attack is "highly likely". A friend of mine said he wouldn't be taking his family to Stratford in 2012 to watch any of the Olympic Games as he fears a terror attack. 
   Nagging doubts like these are fuelled by the ongoing inquest into the terror attacks on 7 July 2005. Police constable Christopher Mitchell recalled making a makeshift splint for Mark Beck, who lost his right leg in the Tavistock Square bomb blast that killed 13 people and the bomber. "We used Sellotape and some bits of wood we found on the road," said Mitchell.
   Don't get the wrong idea. Life in London in 2011 trundles on offering equal measures of typical hum-drum routine and famous vibrancy. Tourists crowd the sightseeing hot spots. Pubs and clubs remain lively. However, it's the future, both immediate and long-term, that worries most people. 
   As for Boris' cockerel - well, the big bird won't be plinthed until 2013. By that time, Boris himself might be politically cock-a-doodle-dooed. Boris seems to be running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds, trying to be seen to speak up for London whilst cringing to doff a boffish cap to his axe-wielding coalition government allies. Ken Livingstone, London's inaugural mayor and Boris' arch-rival, has already started campaigning in south London's suburbs for next year's mayoral election. 
   Apparently, the cockerel doesn't reflect our 'true blue' Tory Mayor but symbolises  'regeneration, awakening and strength'. If 2011 does prove to be the year of savage cuts, London's economy and social fabric will need much regeneration and strengthening over the next ten years.

Paul Coleman, London, January 2011

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Edward Nolan and the Andalucia Star

I've received a request for information from a great grandchild of a surviving crew member of the Andalucia Star.

The Blue Star Line passenger and cargo ship was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat off the West African coast on 6th October 1942.

The note says: "My great grandfather Edward Nolan survived the sinking. 
I've been trying to find more information about the sinking but with no success.
He was a fireman on the ship so was very lucky to survive.
If anyone has more info please let me know."

So, if any of you reading this posting can help Edward Nolan's great grandchild, please send any information you might have. I will endeavour to post it on this blog.

Thank you.

Photos: Paul Coleman

Paul Coleman, London, January 2011

Friday, 14 January 2011

Cheese an' bread down The Old Queens Head

I was determined to kick off my blogging for 2011 with a cheery posting. So, I thought I’d wait for the right topic to tickle me. 
I waited eleven long days and nights. 
Then, on the twelfth night - kaboom!
    Rod, my old mate, (‘less of the ole, if yuh please’, me hear him say), called my superior Blackberry from his iPhone ('i' for 'inferior') at the last minute. He hollered, 'Get your lazy backside down to The Old Queens Head." 
     I nipped down to the pub, a big old barn of a boozer on north London's Essex Road. The valet parking wasn’t of the highest quality. There wasn't even a sniff of a cloakroom.  The downstairs bar looked soberly dull. 
     Then I heard music, lyrics, rhythms and bass tripping down a staircase from an upstairs room. I scampered up the apples to where I could now see the fun and action had already begun…without me! 
      Alright, I was bit late, but didn’t they know I was coming? Surely my name was on the guess list? Unimpressed the girl at the desk sighed, shook her head and tinned my crumpled fiver.
     I squeezed into the packed upstairs pub room and began to enjoy a new London experience. Close Up, a showcase of vibrant, thriving talent and humour, places a strong emphasis on musically-driven performance poetry and acoustic-styled vocals with electric guitar backing.
     Alim ‘Cheese an’ Bread’ Kamara hosted a procession of talented young singers and musicians. Wise heads on young shoulders too; that was my overall impression. Notables from this treasure trove included chanteuse Dionne Reid and Simply Andy with his jokey reggae ditty ‘My iPhone’. 
He really does love his iPhone. Too bad, ladies. 
     Close Up wasn't just 'cheese an' bread' down The Old Queens Head. Genuine generosity was displayed. A bucketful of cash was collected for the African Caribbean Leukemia Trust, a charity promoting bone marrow and blood donation.
     G.R.E.Ed.S,* a performance poet, rapper, spoken word artist, asked in a  thoughtful piece, 'What does being black mean to me?’
"Nobody’s perfect, I’m not perfect," he later chimed. "But there’s room for change." Amen to that. It’s also the YOTP, Year of the Poet. A good theme for 2011.
     But if my arm was twisted, real hard, to pick a favourite, in between my wimpy cries of pain, I’d have to yell The Stow. I think The Stow hail from the 'Stow'; Walthamstow, east London, that is. Loved Shi and her powerful vocals. ‘You Don’t Know Me’ took me right back to my 16-year-old days fuelled by Madness, The Specials, The Beat, The Selector and...I could go on down memory lane.
     Ok, let me confess, I didn’t always have a clue what was going on half the time at Close Up and I wasn't even drinking. But, even as a new ole' timer, I grasped enough to know Close Up confirmed several important truths.
     Firstly, not all people plug their souls into the X Factor agenda. 
    Plenty of more enlightened souls are out there in London. They can and will come together to deal with what's likely to be a tough year.
   And yes, last but not least, you can enjoy a good midweek night out in rainy, cold London...you can shout yourself hoarse, providing you get up and go Close Up, o'course!

Click the links for the next Close Up night in February.
* G.R.E.Ed.S stands for Generating Rhymes to Engage the Enlightened Soul. Beat that for an acronym!

Paul Coleman, London, January 2011