Most people know that the grey squirrel wiped out the red squirrel population of Great Britain, but did you know that many London squirrels can also pick your pocket and forge your cheque-card signature? Some hang around park entrances making sexist remarks about passing girls and throwing nuts at old people. Teams of Gangsta Squirrels, or Squizzas, were behind the Great Hyde Park Conker Scam of 1999, and this year the ones in Regents’ Park operated as ticket touts outside the open-air theatre, resulting in oversubscribed matinee performances of “The Pirates Of Penzance”.
London’s Wildlife Wonderland – Christopher Fowler
In these pages we’ll reveal city secrets to make the giant invisible pandas of Tulse Hill seem merely dreary and suburban. Beautiful things that’ll open your eyes almost as wide as those of Bob Dylan on discovering that his inamorata made love just like a woman and not, as he had for some unaccountable reason hitherto assumed, like a jockey on a box in a Newmarket toilet; or possibly those of a doubt-ridden vicar on realising that the train he’d thought was bound for glory was not only actually bound for Morden via Bank, but also about to be taken out of service at Balham due to vandalism by pagans.
Introduction to Smoke#2 – Matt Haynes
This malady exhibits symptoms of worrying intensity. A nervous compulsion to jump on a 277 bus to Canary Wharf on a chilly Saturday evening in winter, to feel and hear the unearthly buzz of One Canada Square, surrounded by silence. A high fever upon squandering an afternoon on the Transport for London Journey Planner website concocting outlandish expeditions from Hainault to Ruislip via Southfields. A brief psychological block and clammy palms upon finding oneself on the Charlie Brown Roundabout, looking for Snoopy. A frenzied, wild impulse to catch the single-decker around the tangled maze of the Beckton Sewage Works, stopping short to gaze in wonder at the Jenkins Lane Lagoon. Nurse, one may yodel, the screens.
Introduction to Smoke#2 – Jude Rogers
So I walk to work, sometimes, when it isn’t raining (or from work, sometimes, when I don’t have French class, or other plans, and Buffy isn’t on, and it isn’t raining), and I think about Peggy Ramsay and how, even if she didn’t walk this exact same route, she must have walked the streets I walk. She must have walked on the Old Brompton Road and she must have walked on Bedfordbury, to all those dinners on New Row with Simon Callow if nothing else, and of course it’s impossible to walk down Goodwins Court and not think of her.
The Unlikeliest of Places – Clare Wadd
His murders plunge him into a state of quasi-religious ecstasy, in which he has vivid, increasingly complex, prophetic visions of our own, present London. “I have delivered… the twentieth century” he proclaims during one such vision, and one of Moore’s most disturbing points is that this claim is far more plausible than it might seem – and that Gull’s delusions are often distressingly insightful.
From Hell – Alex Naylor
And one day, when London’s public transport system has degraded to such an extent that it’s no longer possible to complete a trip from east to west without seeking overnight accommodation, the Once And Future King and his pure-hearted cohorts will rise from their centuries of slumbers, ride out of Tintagel House on their milk-white steeds, have a quick coffee and a Danish at the Madeira Patisserie opposite, and then – to quote that ancient chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth – catch a bus of pure and noble standing, and ride forth upon it to City Hall, where a great and bloody battle will be waged and won against the forces of darkness; and, once the great battle is ended, and the stones of the Southwark shore are rubied with enemy blood, some sort of knightly sub-committee will be set up under the chairmanship of Sir Lancelot to look into the possibility of re-phasing the traffic lights on Euston Road and putting more trains on the Bank branch.
Bus of the Month: 360, Elephant & Castle to South Kensington – Matt Haynes
I live in a flat that was a pawnshop all the way through the Victorian age and well into the twentieth century. The wrought ironwork spike off which the pawnbroker’s sign, three golden balls, used to hang is still there, screwed into the brickwork at the front of the building. My kitchen, at the back of the flat, overlooks a roof where pigeons rest; in winter they puff up against the cold, in summer they lie with wings outstretched, red eyes half-closed in bliss. Sunset comes in over the tower blocks beyond, and planes leave soft lines in the sky as they pass overhead.
Strange & Dreadful News from the High Street, Deptford – Jess Sully
“Dirty Pretty Things” lays bare a London that is the keeper of secrets; not the secrets of its history or secrets of its evolution that appear in its many myths and legends, but secrets that conceal the stories of its many unofficial inhabitants, stories of cruel twists and fatal conclusions. Secrets are unravelled in a way that jolts us away from the romance of the city, and instead shows us the brutal realities of life as an asylum seeker with barbarous, bloody punches. Identities change, move and shift, not to create mystery, but to comply with the demands of necessity. To be hidden is the imperative for someone forced to live in the underworld, to blend into surroundings, to never be noticed.
Dirty Pretty Things – Jude Rogers
The plan was to walk away from London. This negative goal, this quest for absence, excited me, and I wore the expression of one pulling a half-eaten bus-map from the styrofoam detritus of the motorway verge. Behind me, Atkins and Drummond wore the expressions of men improvising plans for reconfiguring the city’s rage, hopefully into some sort of fugitive photographic exhibition. While out in front the sculptor Rachel Whiteread wore a small fur bikini and flip-flops and was singing a song about dwarves going off to work which I didn’t really understand, but before I could ask her what it meant she started telling us about her next project, which was to fill the inside of a telephone box with clear plastic resin, in order to make people think twice about things. Drummond said he’d once tried to fill the inside of a telephone box with urine, but had been arrested.
Psychogeography Corner – Matt Haynes
But as I fall asleep each night, it’s not the wild coast of Orkney, or the inky-dark Straits of Dover that I dream about. As the sound of passing taxis blends with the announcer’s voice, I dream of spent clubbers marooned on the concrete reef under Centre Point, just a single spindly coconut tree for shelter. Bus conductors lash themselves to their poles as Routemasters brave high seas around the treacherous cape of Hyde Park Corner.
The London Shipping Forecast – Sebastian Brennan
I love these little encounters. And I love them all the more for being so assumed and accepted. It seems to me a crowning glory of our civilisation that we’ve built up this benign system of kindness, all subscribing to a silent social contract purely to make things a bit nicer for each other. Think how cheated we feel when someone stands on the left of the escalator. They’ve broken the contract and who cares if they’re a crazed Danish backpacker who doesn’t know any better.
Strangers on a Train – Guy Griffiths
Monopoly. Everyone’s played it, and even those coming of age on some distant plashy fen and still yet to set webbed foot on our fabled city’s steepled streets, run twelve podgy fingers over our Tube map, or wedge a plastic policeman’s helmet on slightly over-sized head, soon find its simple paintbox geography imprinted upon their childish minds; they might not yet know the way to their nearest bus-shelter, or the best place to buy illicit fags or race stoats, but they know that owning property on the Old Kent Road just isn’t worth the hassle, that the four most important stations in London are King’s Cross, Liverpool Street, Marylebone and Fenchurch Street, and that Londoners spend much of their daily lives disguised as dogs and coming second in beauty contests.
Going Back to Old Kent Road – Matt Haynes
Selvon writes a kind of pavement poetry. He shows us the city from the point of view of those blowing into their palms on their way to an early shift, or tramping up to the dole office, or having just done a runner from a nasty hostel when they can’t pay the rent. It’s through their eyes that we gaze longingly at pretty young secretaries leaving their offices on summer evenings, at the friezes hanging from below the cornices of aged buildings, at the sheer dizzying pandemonium of the metropolis.
The Lonely Londoners – Sukhdev Sandhu
I can clutch a Baedeker to my bosom, trip the light fantastic with a Blue Badge Guide, dance by Big Ben and The Tower, wave at the Queen and rotate upon the London Eye, but such London tours don’t always fill my heart with ardour. I prefer to hark back to the London I first knew when living the other side of The Severn. Thinking, the first time I came here, that if I went south of the river, maybe I’d see Marlene pushing her buggy, Mickey Pierce in his pork-pie hat and Trigger with his broom. When you’re young, Del Boy and Rodney are real as apples and pears, and they live in a mystical land that is forever Peckham.
Where Do Only Fools And Horses Work? – Jude Rogers
DECEMBER, 1968: a man dressed as Santa Claus enters the department store Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London, and begins handing out the shop’s toys to the delight of passing children. He is aided by a few friends, fittingly dressed as Santa’s Helpers. Selfridges are understandably alarmed. Accompanied by the police, security officials step in. A struggle begins between Santa, his Helpers, and The Authorities. Store workers demand the children hand the toys back; the children watch in horror as Santa is placed under arrest. It all gets very strange. Didn’t anyone understand? This was an attack on Consumerism!
All Hail King Mob! – Lenny
In Gin Alley a bed cost tuppence a single, three for a couple, so strangers became couples for the night, sharing fetid sacks with other strangers, breeding in corners like rats. Queasy with contempt and fear of these beggars, thieves, vagrants, Irish (they called it Little Dublin, the Holy Land), the rich turned their faces, their noses, turned tail and headed West, knowing they wouldn’t be followed; in the Plague years, neighbouring parishes had posted guards to turn back escapees, but since then St Giles had congealed, scabbed over, turned in on itself to moulder on straw below the street, 20 to a cellar north of Henry Flitcroft’s elegant new church. By 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, 54,000 lives were being squeezed into the vermicular alleys and dead-ways riddling this infested mass; a police no-go zone, the Rat’s Castle tavern a thieves’ safe-house in the dead dark heart of the hive.
Lived and then Died in Flitcroft Street – Matt Haynes
London is a palimpsest of a city: layer upon layer has been built up, only to be razed on a change of fashion or proprietorial whim. Northumberland House has an odd poignancy, though: it lasted long enough to be photographed; it so nearly made it through. My favourite photograph shows the house in stately isolation, the photographer having framed his picture cunningly, cutting out the seething commerce that surrounded it. The presence of the nineteenth-century city is maintained, however, through the figure of a lone policeman, gazing – rapt? bored? – from the vantage-point of a convenient lamp-post.
The Last of the Strand Palaces – Lucy Munro
Their direct presence in the works is especially poignant in the Dirty Words suite of 1977. Taking graffiti from London’s streets and juxtaposing it in a grid structure with red and black photos of council estates, the homeless, the underdogs, it is as though they are there in the scene, inviting us to join them. This is, after all, their London, this graffiti is from their streets. Seeing them positioned alongside anonymous scrawls of “queer”, or “bent”, makes accusations of artistic detachment seem hollow.
London’s Vitruvian Men – Barry McKeown
Back in the summer of ’96, my personal boiling-point was reached time and time again by being asked who my favourite Spice Girl was. (Did I hate them all? Yes.) In my house, the cool question was: “Ah, but who’s your favourite Headcoatee?”
London Pop Girls No.2: Thee Headcoatees – Jeanette Leech
When I was a young girl, growing up in the early Sixties, my father – I forget his name – would often blindfold me and drive me out in his Bentley to somewhere deeply suburban. Once there he would stop, hand me a packet of fig-rolls, and shoo me out onto the pavement, leaving me to find my own way home. At the time, I thought nothing of it – I assumed all families were the same. It was only when I mentioned it to the Watsons – the nice middle-aged couple in Raynes Park onto whose patio I’d accidentally blundered one afternoon (how strange it seems, looking back, that it never once occurred to me to remove the blindfold, such was the great respect I had for my father), and who’d chosen to employ me as a garden ornament rather than simply drive me to the nearest station with a five pound note tucked tightly in my fist, as most of my rescuers did – that I realised my father was possibly quite mad. Confused, and a little angry, I’d returned to my hollow beneath the laburnum determined that, once the summer was over and the Watsons no longer had need of me, I would confront him with the matter.
The Poodle Excuse-Me – Tricity Bendix
Start on the southbound Piccadilly Line platform at FINSBURY PARK. This popular interchange houses mosaics marking past airborne fancies. The platform, sadly left to its own devices, once boasted bright, lively balloons, pumped up with colours, placed at stages down the facing wall. These balloons spoke of stories of hype and hot air. They told of rides in the local park. The first hot-air journey that allegedly took place nearby. Charles Green’s aeronautical enterprises. Count von Zeppelin’s visits to the balloon works of C.G. Spencer and Sons in a building behind 56a Highbury Grove. Now the enamel ages and flakes, and belies the beauty of the scenes. The clatter and clack of transitory trains peel another layer from history.
A Night On The Tiles – Jude Rogers
I was entranced by it, those streets, the buildings aching with the weight of people, the mile-long mezzanines of flats above shops, the way people walked quickly with their heads down. It was curiously unreal. I only ever saw it as a view, as a backdrop. To me it only existed silently on the other side of a closed window.
The City Behind The Glass – Stuart Evers