May 21, 2012
In May 2012, a new Banksy wall painting in Turnpike Lane was excitedly reported by the world’s media. Depicting a child making Jubilee bunting, the trail of flags were removed after less than 24 hours.
Now that the debate as to whether graffiti is art is long over, a new problem has arisen with street art: it’s easy to ruin it.
While many of Banksy’s pieces have been covered with plexiglass by the owners of the buildings they appear on, countless works have been destroyed.
There’s all manners of ways in which London is deprived of these pieces of public art.
In September 2011, the work above appeared on the side of Luti Fagbenle’s post-production company, Portobello Post, in Portobello Road – Banksy painted it on a Sunday morning, having erected scaffolding so he could work unseen while the Portobello Market was in full swing. After protecting it with plexiglass, Fagbenle put the piece up for auction on eBay, saying “‘I could never justify owning a piece of art worth that much.”
With a Buy It Now price of £1,000,000, it attracted a high bid of £208,100 (and an additional £5000 to remove it from the wall, and consequently repair the hole left behind.)
Less professional attempts have also been made to remove pieces for sale: Lily Evans wrote an article for Vice Magazine about her disastrous attempt to retrieve a famous rat which ended in the complete destruction of the piece.
Similarly, some pieces have been removed not for profit, but by local councils, keen not to have their workplaces despoiled.
In October 2008, Westminister City Council demanded the removal of a huge mural painted on a building part-occupied by the Royal Mail sorting office on Newman Street.
While the Council said the owner of the building was free to do what he liked with the three-storey high-image – sell it or exhibit it elsewhere – they demanded it be removed from the site.
Deputy leader of the council Robert Davis said keeping the mural would mean “condoning” graffiti. “I take the view that this is graffiti and if you condone this then what is the difference between this and all the other graffiti you see scrawled across the city? If you condone this then you condone graffiti all over London.”
Westminster Council couldn’t have taken a more opposing view to Camden, who had long spoken of their admiration for Banksy’s maid, which had been stencilled on a wall belonging to the Roundhouse close to Chalk Farm Road.
But on the night the Hawley Arms and Lock Market caught fire in February 2008, the Camden New Journal reported “another Camden icon was being destroyed.”
The maid was obliterated with white paint.
The whitewash attack in Regent’s Park Road was made under cover of darkness, with a sarcastic calling card wishing “All the Best – Vida” left spray-painted at the scene.
The actions of the mysterious “Vida” fly in the face of an unspoken law practised by council officials, which has seen Banksy’s street art preserved, even retouched, while all other artistic offerings on the same wall – the most recent a life-sized wooden mantelpiece – are swiftly removed.
Beyind saving, the council commissioned a large mural from the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra to replace it.
The needless defacing of Banksy’s works has never been more apparent than in Archway, where one of his most famous stencils of Charles Manson hitching a ride to ‘Anywhere’ had stood opposite the McDonalds on Junction Road since 2005.
One of the oldest of Banksy’s large-scale works, by the time I took these photos in 2009, the image was weather-worn and some additional graffiti had appeared.
But in 2010, Banksy was accused of altering a twenty-five-year-old tag by Robbo (described by the Guardian as “one of the founding fathers of the London graffiti scene) on the Regents Canal.
By now hugely successful, Banksy eliminated much of the original with the addition of a workman pasting the tag up like wallpaper.
Insulted by Banksy’s actions, Robbo (now dubbed King Robbo) returned to re-alter the altered tag. In an interview with the Sabotage Times, Robbo said he did it himself, scooting across the canal in a wetsuit on an inflatable lilo.
He broke a graff code of conduct and for a lawless community we have a lot of laws, so I had to come back. What people don’t realise is that he’d already gone over loads of my stuff before and I hadn’t bothered retaliating but this time it was just so deliberate, so cowardly. If you’ve got the hump about something, you send a message and discuss it like gentlemen, you don’t wipe out a piece of graffiti history.
As the war of words on walls started to grow, Team Robbo set about altering many of Banksy’s works in North London. Following alterations to works in Camden Town, the Archway hitchhiker’s sign was changed from ‘Anywhere’ to ‘Going Nowhere.’
The alteration to the sign was quickly buffed out (presumably by the Council) and the original figure was left holding a blank sign for a couple of months.
But in November 2011, supposedly irritated by the respect accorded to Banksy by the authorities while their own efforts had been cleaned away, someone from Team Robbo decided to entirely obliterate the Hitchhiker with white paint.
A ‘spokesman’ told the Islington Times:
Regarding the Archway piece, Team Robbo and Team Banksy are still ‘at war’ and, unfortunately, there is sometimes collateral damage to innocent artworks. It has become increasingly hard for us to verify whether or not a specific artwork has been attacked or damaged in crossfire. Furthermore, many writers outside the Team Robbo crew in London are involved in covert actions.
After six months, the decision was taken to clean the work off the wall entirely.
All that remains after five years is a pale, ghostly outline of the Banksy.
Team Robbo have occassionally tagged the Archway area – here’s their hesitant contribution from a nearby building site next to the Whittington and Cat pub which appeared in the last couple of months.
July 26, 2011
The first sign that a vigil is ongoing in Camden Square comes on nearby Murray Street. Someone has added something to the road-sign in pen: “Amy”, followed by an arrow pointing towards the house in which she lived.
Since her death sometime in the early afternoon of Saturday 23rd July, the small strip of grass opposite No. 30 Camden Square has transformed into a shrine to Amy Winehouse.
Three days after her death, the road is choked with TV vans with vast satellites on their roofs. Spanish students lounge around, hugging one another and making peace signs into iPhones. Cyclists slow down to look at the crowd. Despite the hundred or so people standing around – waiting for something, but quite what it is, no-one seems sure – it’s incredibly quiet.
The main voices to be heard are those of TV reporters – no British ones on the scene by Monday, just American and Australian entertainment stringers filing back reports to unseen studios.
It’s not funereal as such, but there are no MP3 players, no radios, and no one singing any of the songs so intimately associated with the woman whose death has brought them here. Instead, there’s a sullen, hugely respectful line of people filing by the 18ft of mementoes that have collected at the entrance to the park which Amy Winehouse’s home looks directly out on.
The singer’s face beams back from dozens of photocopied photographs taken with fans over the years; with drawings of her famous beehive and thick kohl eyelashes; with handwritten notes; and with the occasional large painting celebrating the icon she’d become some time before her untimely death.
Despite working in music radio for years, I only ever saw Amy Winehouse once – and naturally it was in Camden. Coming down from the private room at the top of the Hawley Arms much too late one Friday night a few years back, I passed her on the stairs, small, tottering on massive heels, resplendent in a clingy black and white checked dress. It wasn’t a special moment by any means – it just seemed like the natural order of things. You went out drinking in Camden every so often and, sooner or later, you’d see Amy Winehouse.
She was one of the few contemporary musical acts to be intimately associated with a specific area of London. Camden and Amy; the two were synonymous. Drugs, vintage clothing, live music, rough boys, late nights, hard drinking – it’s hard to think of another star whose attributes match so exactly the place where they lived.
She was living in Camden when she became both an international star and domestic tabloid dynamite. At the height of her notoriety in 2008, she briefly moved to Bow (leaving Camden was intended to remove her from familiar habit and temptation) but returned after a year, buying the house in Camden Square in March 2010. But as soon as she did, as the Sun put it, “the parasites…crept back in and dragged her into the gutter.”
Three days before her death, her final on-stage appearance was fittingly at the Camden Roundhouse, where she sang with her goddaughter Dionne Bromfield as part of the iTunes Festival. Camden was the melting pot where she created her internationally celebrated work Back To Black; it would also be the last place her majestic voice would ever be heard.
On Thursday, walking back into town after a meeting in Kentish Town, I wandered down Inverness Street. I was thinking of doing an entry on the Good Mixer pub, but there were spits of rain in the air, and I decided I’d postpone snapping away. As I walked back, I noticed one of the stalls in the market had a large airbrushed picture of Winehouse on the back. It read: “Nobody stands between me and my Camden.”
I pondered taking a photo, but as the rain started to pick up, I skipped past and headed for the station.
When I walked back past it today (the record shop immediately behind playing You Know I’m No Good loud enough so that it could be heard by anyone passing by), the stallholder had covered the whole thing with a black sheet. Whether it was a tribute or just to keep the tourists and their pens away from his stall, I don’t know, but it seemed apt.
Further up the road, the probable future of the Amy Winehouse brand was prominently displayed. In the window of Escapade, sandwiched between two Blues Brothers, was the Winehouse fancy dress kit. The tragic story of a phenomenally talented young woman is boiled down to a beehive and a microphone you can wear at a hen party.
The house in Camden Square will undoubtedly become the newest exhibit in the London rock tour, another pilgrimage site filed alongside the residences where Mama Cass and Jimi Hendrix expired.
The graffiti appearing on the road-signs this weekend is just the start.
As soon as the police tape is rolled up, the wall of No.30 is going to be scribbled on by people from all over the world. The residents of Camden Square will have to get used to stepping over half-melted candles and soggy hand-written notes scattered across the square. The house will become as essential a Camden destination as Stables Market and the Electric Ballroom.
Walking round the collection of letters, photos and drawings that celebrate her life in Camden Square, a man in his sixties pointed out a glass of rose to his wife. “She liked a drink, that’s true! She certainly liked a drink!” As he pointed, his voice suddenly cracked and he started to sob.
There is something undeniably moving about the piles of single cigarettes, the half-size bottles of vodka, the nicorette patches plastered onto the trees, and the half-full wine glasses standing up on the grass. It seemed to me like the communal equivalent of everyone getting together in a pub to toast the deceased after the funeral.
It’s just so terribly sad.
There’s nothing else to say.
UPDATE – August 2011
As the days went on, ten of the road signs around Amy Winehouse’s former home (the first photo in this post shows the sign two days after her death) became completely covered in graffiti from fans. The Ham and High reported that four were taken by souvenir hunters, who ignored pleas from Camden Council to return them so they could be passed on to her family.
Camden Council’s environment boss Sue Vincent told the paper: “We are appealling to the good nature and conscience of the person or persons who stole the signs and are asking for them to be returned. We are not concerned with who took them and will not be investigating this if we can get them back. The signs can be returned to any police station in Camden and no questions will be asked. They will then be given to the Winehouse family.”
May 4, 2011
In getting rid of all the stuff I’ve accumulated over the years, I came across this advert a couple of days ago in a British Planet Of The Apes weekly comic from 1975 – Stan Lee, live at the Camden Roundhouse.
He presented a slide-show, with tickets priced at 60p. I absolutely would love to see Stan Lee – I think as a writer, he’s one of the greats of the twentieth century. So many household names flowed out of his head in such a short span of time (about four years in the mid-60s, many of them in collaboration with the artists Jacky Kirby and Steve Ditko) – Spiderman, The Hulk, Thor, The X-Men, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, Doctor Octopus (surely one of the greatest villain names ever?), Dr Doom, The Avengers, Daredevil, Dr Strange; the list just goes on and on.
It was about this time that the first comic shops started opening in London (one of the very first was Dark They Were And Golden Eyed, which moved around Soho throughout the seventies), but it’s sad to see how many of them have closed in the last decade. It’s a combination of the industry destroying itself in the 1990s by pandering to speculators and taking their eye off of stories, the growth of a few professionally-run shops (the Forbidden Planet was always number one by a long chalk, even when it was in a dusty, wooden-floored Denmark Street shop), and the fact that kids these days have more exciting things to do that open comics. They can play Fallout 3 for God’s sake, and given the choice between reading or killing mutant dogs, who can blame them?
I think Stan Lee might be the one single author whose work I’ve spent the longest time reading, and have enjoyed the most. He seems like a completely untortured, friendly, unpretentious genius, and he’s had more of an effect on global culture than pretty much anyone else in the last fifty years, and what’s more, in an entirely positive way.
I’d happily pay a lot more than 60p to see him do a slide show today. Hey, I’d pay more than 60p just to have him shout a trademark ‘Excelsior!’ right into my face.
May 4, 2011
I first came across David Thomson’s In Camden Town a couple of years ago as bite-sized entries in a London anthology book. Thomson’s tightly wrought street reportage stood out like a beacon amidst the other more florid and familiar entries, so I kept an eye out for the book whenever I popped into a second-hand book shop. After a fruitless year of searching, I turned to Abebooks, where I picked up a battered second-hand copy for a couple of quid.
Put simply, it’s an enthralling work about London by a largely forgotten, hugely talented writer.
Born in 1914, Thomson worked as a writer, researcher and BBC radio producer, writing three novels, a book about animal folklore, and a number of children’s books for Puffin, such as Danny Fox, Danny Fox Meets A Stranger and Danny Fox At The Palace. In 1955, he and his wife moved to Regents Park Terrace in Camden to bring their three sons up.
In 1980, at the age of 66, he was attempting to complete a vast, sprawling history of Camden Town. Struck with writer’s block at the sheer immensity of the project, he started to keep a diary.
He thought that forcing himself to write short entries each day would help break the deadlock, as well as “bypass for a time my dread of opening the manuscript at the page where I left off.” About halfway through his diary, he attempted to restart the book, but found himself in tears after just six lines. Returning to his new manuscript later in the day, he found the page he had been working on had been torn out – only he couldn’t remember having done so, nor could he remember what he’d written.
The book he ended up publishing instead was the diary – a wide-ranging vivid often beautiful, often bad-tempered account of life in Camden Town, as he writes, drinks and struggles with work.
He spends days roaming through Camden, describing the horrors and the dirt that he passes – “Canal black, with plastic cups floating on it, potato-crisp bags, Kentucky chicken and, I think, a dead cat” – popping into the pubs along the way, and passing hours chatting to the tramps, drunks and chancers who he runs into on a regular basis.
Thomson frequently writes about a Scottish alcoholic named Davy and his on-off partner Mary. He’d known them both for twenty years,
but only been on speaking terms with him since Christmas Eve in 1975…Davy came up to me and said that the off-licence was shut and would I go into the pub and get some cider. He had some little coins in his hand to encourage me. They are not allowed in anywhere and only into one cafe that I know of. I got the cider and some Guinness for myself and we went to drink it on a bench near the Buck’s Head where in those days they liked to sit in the sun facing the end of Inverness Street market. No market that day. Beautiful sun, but weak. Mary and Davy were surprised that I felt cold. They spend their lives in such places.
Elsewhere, Thomson talks with passion on the conditions that navvies worked under on the railways into Euston (a topic that he would have covered in his never-completed history) – in the course of his research, he discovered a record of a woman who’s lost twenty-nine of her partners in six years, and only one of them to natural causes.
Thomson starts to despise the fact he’s getting old, tells how he once smelled what he thinks were “ghost horses” at some traffic lights at Henley’s Corner, talks about how the smell of bonfires rouse old memories, and decides that the Punk fashion (this being 1980) he sees outside The Music Machine venue is akin to Puritanism – “it is startling to see such a look of severity, especially on the girl’s faces in the evening outside a pleasure dome, but this I guess is fashion too.”
He attends a sparse funeral in East Finchley for a pauper (“I felt I was in a desolate housing estate among minature houses for the dead”) and relates how even as an elderly man, he still always sat near attractive women on buses.
If it’s a girl with long hair down her back…I clasp the hand rail on the back of her seat. That’s what it’s meant for I suppose, but I’ve never seen anyone else clasp it. And as she moves her head her hair touches my hands….I just haven’t changed since I was fifteen. I learn from autobiographies that people do change.
Published by Hutchinson, and later in paperback by Penguin, the book was reviewed favourably at the time by The Guardian and The TLS, so it seems quite surprising that David Thomson is almost totally obscure today. His memoir Woodbrook (concerning a period in the 1930s where he tutored two girls in a rural Irish country house and ended up staying for ten years) is better known, but Thomson’s work has largely fallen out of the public eye.
Seamus Heaney wrote an introduction for a reissue of Thomson’s collection of seal folktales The People Of The Sea in 2001, and much of what he says about that ‘luminous’ book could equally apply to In Camden Town .
He refers to “the sweetness and intimacy of David Thomson’s imagination,” saying the book follows “his own creative, truth-telling bent with characteristic unpredictability and sprightliness.” Oddly, it sounds all very high-falutin’ until you’ve read In Camden Town, and the spikiness, the strangeness and the vividness that Heaney talks of can be spotted immediately.
The fact Heany’s comment applies equally to a book about living in a run-down North London district, as it does to a book about ancient Celtic seal fables, is purely down to the sheer brilliance of Thomson’s writing.
It’s a shame that this book has been totally forgotten, and it’s a shame that David Thomson seems to have been totally forgotten too. It’s something neither of them deserve.