The dawn of Creation

January 20, 2012

In 1983, a Glaswegian-born, London-living British Railway employee named Alan McGee founded a music fanzine named Communication Blur, which span off into a fledging record label called Creation.

Having sporadically released records by the likes of Biff Bang Pow!, The X-Men and The Legend! (better known as NME journalist Everett True), McGee started a weekly music night called The Living Room in August 1983. The gigs fulfilled two purposes: the headliners sold tickets, meaning McGee could put the profits back into his record label, and it gave the largely unknown acts he had signed a chance to get some exposure.

The club opened at The Adams Arms (now the Lukin) in Conway Street, in an upstairs room which had been a folk club called Dingles from the mid-1970s. In front of an audience of some 150 people, the Television Personalities headlined the first night, and the gig was reviewed in Groovy Black Shades issue 6 (1983).

The PA was minimal, the lights were either an anglepoise lamp or a slide show depending on the band. And it was so bloody hot!! But there was a very relaxed atmosphere, so relaxed that the first band Miles Landesman were still in the bar when they should have been on ‘stage.’

The first Creation LP (released in August 1984) was a compilation entitled Alive In The Living Room, consisting of recordings made on hand-held recorders from the audience at the Conway Street pub.

The bands recorded at the Adams Arms for the album include The Television Personalities, The Mekons, The  Jasmine Minks, The June Brides, The Legend!, The Pastels and Alternative TV.

After a period as an O’Neills, the pub was renamed The Lukin in the 2009. I had wondered if this was a continuation of the pub’s musical history, and it was named after the American Mark Lukin, the bassist in the Melvins and Mudhoney (he’s practically the only Lukin that comes up on Google.) But after I said I thought it was a “crappy pun name” (as in ‘Look In’), I was emailed by Shaun, the owner. He rightly said if I’d wanted to know where the name came from, I should have just popped in and asked. So the next day, I went along.

From the outside, I’d thought it was a chain pub; I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s a charming, large, jam-packed local, and on the Friday I went in, it was heaving with people ordering roasts. Shaun couldn’t have been more welcoming, and he urged me to pop upstairs to see the room where the club had originally been.

To the left is a bar, to the right, a huge fireplace. It’s exactly as it was when the club was running nearly thirty years ago.

Sadly, there’s no chance of it being used for any more live music, Shaun told me – the area is now residential enough to mean complaints about noise. He also let me know that The Lukin is named in honour of his grandfather (Lukin was his surname.)

The Living Room moved from the Adams Arms in 1984 to the upstairs room of The Roebuck (now The Court) at 108 Tottenham Court Road. The new venue already had a small musical footnote associated with it – in July 1965, 18-year-old Davey Jones performed a successful audition for manager Ralph Horton at the pub with his band The Lower Third (two months later, Jones adopted the stage name ‘David Bowie.’)

It was at the Roebuck “in front of 10, possibly 15 people” on the 8th June 1984 that East Kilbride’s The Jesus and Mary Chain performed their debut London gig.

Reminiscing about the night in MOJO, Jim Reid recalled “it was an absolute racket. We’re still having a blazing row while we’re supposed to be playing this song…” Bass player Douglas Hart remembered that “there was a lot of pent-up energy released. Years of frustration. It was total chaos. People just stood and stared.”With the guitars untuned, a broken fuzz pedal creating a horrible noise, the PA emitting ear-splitting shrieks of feedback as it struggled with the volume, and William Reid playing with his back to the audience, the set lasted just ten minutes.

Even though Creation’s co-founder Dick Green later admitted “I’m sure nobody meant it to sound like it sounded,” an awestruck Alan McGee signed the Jesus and Mary Chain to his fledging label immediately.

The Jesus and Mary Chain with (R) Alan McGee in Plymouth, 1985 (photo by Valerie Hicks)

Their first single Upside Down stayed on the UK indie chart for 76 weeks, becoming one of the biggest selling indie singles of the 1980s, and would kickstart McGee’s rapid rise into the big leagues. The Living Room shut up shop sometime late in 1984 as McGee went on to sign a who’s who of British indie acts throughout the next decade, including My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Oasis, Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub and the Super Furry Animals.

The name ‘Creation’ became famous worldwide, but it was in these two Fitzrovia pubs where the label’s rise truly began.

But it’s hard not to feel there’s something daft about changing pub names, which wipe out even the most recent years of history in a single stroke.

The area between Bloomsbury and Euston is a strange part of London. The wide empty roads run between towering buildings set around a series of large, flat, featureless squares. Most are canopied by vast trees. With no shops or businesses along the road, and large silent academic buildings fencing the squares in on both sides, there aren’t often many people around. The squares are consequently unusually (almost eerily) quiet for a central London location.

The people in the squares are so unaccustomed to having company, they often look up as you wander in, stare suspiciously for a while and hesitatingly dip back into their books. Whenever I’ve been into one, there are only ever a couple of solitary UCL students sitting on a distant bench, or a runner briefly diverting through the grass before popping back on the road. Like me, many of them must half-wonder if the squares are private and just be waiting for someone to come over and angrily ask them how they got in and what the hell they think they’re doing. It’s the type of place you half expect to spot George Smiley whiling away the hours waiting for a contact to arrive.

Tavistock Square Gardens are much the same as the neighbouring seven squares, but the large statue of Gandhi in the middle means there are usually one or two Indian students hanging around at the gates, some of whom leave handfuls of fresh flowers at the base. A tree, planted by the then Indian Prime Minister Nehru in 1953, grows in the south-east of the square.

But close by the tree there’s something which doesn’t grow.

Long before the area was laid out as squares and terraces at the end of the 1700s, it was known as Southampton Fields. Unlit, undeveloped and on the far edge of seventeenth-century London’s sprawl, it was a popular haunt for lovers who picked plantain, a low growing herb, for it’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities.

The same privacy which attracted lovers also attracted those who had scores to settle away from the bright lights (and the justice) of the town. As the nineteenth century antiquarian John Timbs put it in The Romance of London, “the ground lay waste, and being on the edge of the great town, presented a ready arena for its idle and lawless dangerous classes…They were the resort of depraved persons, chiefly for fighting pitched battles.”

According to legend, two brothers, both soldiers in the Duke of Monmouthshire’s short-lived peasant army, met on the site of the present day Tavistock Square in 1695 to fight a duel. They had both fallen in love with the same woman “who would not declare a preference”, and as she coolly watched, the two brothers “fought so ferociously as to destroy each other; after which, their footsteps, imprinted on the ground in the vengeful struggle, were said to remain, with the indentations produced by their advancing and receding; nor would any grass or vegetation ever grow over these forty footsteps.”

In this unnatural act – brother killing brother – the very ground on which their blood had been spilled is said to have revolted. The scene soon became known as the Field of the Forty Footsteps, a phrase coined by one “Miss Porter and her sister”, who heard the story and used it as the basis for a romantic novel.

The poet Southey visited “The Brothers’ Steps” after a friend recommended he “take a view of those wonderful marks of the Lord’s hatred to duelling.”

We sought for near half an hour in vain…We were almost out of hope, when an honest man, who was at work, directed us to the next ground, adjoining to a pond. There we found what we sought…The steps are of the size of a large human foot, about three inches deep, and lie nearly from north-east to south-west. We counted only seventy-six; but we were not exact in counting. The place where one or both the brothers are supposed to have fallen is still bare of grass. The labourer also showed us the bank where (the tradition is) the wretched woman sat to see the combat.

Of course, with popularity came the reason why the footsteps were so apparent. As stated by A Book For A Rainy Day, the author mentioned that “the fact is, that these steps were so often trodden that it was impossible for the grass to grow.”

In 1800, the author of Commonplace Books, Joseph Moser, claimed the footsteps were built over as the terraces were erected.

June 16, 1800. Went into the fields…and there saw, for the last time, the forty footsteps; the building materials are there, ready to cover them from the sight of man. I counted more than forty, but they might be the footprints of the workmen.

Huge numbers of London books over the centuries have retold the tale – but none of the authors I’ve read actually bothered to see if these footsteps were still in Tavistock Square. So I went with my camera to see if they were.

And you know what?

They are.

I know – it’s silly.

I was looking for patterns. Look at the mud in any park you chose to go into, and you’d find similar shapes. The mind tricks the eye into seeing what it wants to see.

But whatever the real explanation is – mental suggestion, an ancient fraud, or some botanical fungus that kills those particular portions of grass – it sure looks to me like a row of man-sized footprints walking in a straight line exactly where the old books said they’d be.

A Tesco Far, Far Away

January 3, 2012

The vast Tesco in Borehamwood is probably the most famous supermarket in the London area.

Walking into it – and it’s more like walking into a small town than a supermarket – there’s little clue as to its claim to fame. But looking around, there are one or two hints.

On top of the covered walkway leading up from the huge, featureless car park is an unusual weather vane.

And if you look to your left when you reach the doors, there’s a much larger clue.

Before the mammoth Tesco was built, the site formed the backlot of Elstree Studios – the most important film studio in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s and today most famous as the location where the original Star Wars trilogy was filmed.

The image below shows the studios at the time Star Wars was filmed – to the right of the red line is where the Tesco stands today, while on the left is what remains of the studios, all largely untouched.

Opened in 1925 as the First National Studios by American JD Williams (who bought the site when it was informed it was “free of fog”), the 50 acres making up Elstree Studios are actually not located in Elstree, but Borehamwood. At the time, Borehamwood was little more than a few houses and a pub, so the railway station in the centre was named ‘Elstree’ after the better known nearby village (the station’s name eventually changed to Elstree and Borehamwood to reflect the town’s growth.)

In 1929, the first British talkie was produced at the studios – Blackmail, directed by a 30-year-old Alfred Hitchcock. A parallel silent version was also made, which proved more popular at the time, due to a lack of cinemas with the technology to broadcast the soundtrack.

As Elstree Studios – and the five rival studio complexes which sprang up in its wake – brought work to the area, Borehamwood grew into a larger town. It was dubbed the ‘British Hollywood’ during the 1950s and 1960s, when films including The Dam Busters, Look Back in Anger, Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones and Summer Holiday, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita and Ice Cold In Alex were filmed in the six studios, side by side with a host of hugely successful TV series including The Avengers, Jason King, The Saint, The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).

In the early 1970s, the studio work started to slowly dry up – classic films like The Railway Children and A Clockwork Orange gave way to On The Buses and the Confessions of a Window Cleaner series, and the TV dramas deserted the studios for location shoots, taking a page out of the book of ITV’s hugely popular The Sweeney.

The similarly struggling Hammer production company moved from Bray to Elstree in 1967, and made a series of movies at the studios until they slid into bankruptcy in 1979. Aside from a handful of late classics (such as Quatermass and the Pit and One Million Years BC, remembered more for Raquel Welch’s fur bikini than anything else), the Elstree-vintage Hammer films began to ramp up the gore and nudity as the censors relaxed the code, and they had to compete with more gruesome horror fayre from America and Italy. 1976’s Dennis Wheatley adaptation To The Devil A Daughter was the final Hammer film made at the studios and it largely disappeared without trace at the box office.

The struggling studios were thrown a lifeline in 1975, when George Lucas decided to film Star Wars at Elstree (the first shot of the film was recorded in Studio 8, which is still standing today – when I was there, the ITV show Dancing On Ice was being loaded in.)

It was simply a stroke of good luck out of bad. Fox had little faith in the supposedly ‘dead’ genre of sci-fi, so wanted to hire somewhere cheap for what they thought would undoubtedly be a money-loser. Elstree’s studios were not just big enough to accommodate the massive scale of Lucas’s pre-CGI vision, but they were also empty and available at rock-bottom prices. And it wasn’t just Fox that had no faith in Lucas’s movie being a success – Elstree Studios were offered a flat-fee or a percentage of the profits of the film, and immediately plumped for the flat-fee.

Lucas returned again in 1979 to make The Empire Strikes Back, in 1982 to make Return of the Jedi, and over the years Willow, Labyrinth and the Indiana Jones series (having been taught a lesson about underestimating Lucas’s money-making ability by taking a flat-fee instead of a profit share with Star Wars, the studio amazingly rejected exactly the same offer when he made Raiders of the Lost Ark.) It was the era of the big studio-bound spectacular, and it would mark the high watermark of Elstree’s fortunes.

Lucas’s contribution to the studio’s fortunes are commemorated in the massive George Lucas Stage which was built in 1999, overlooking the Tesco where his movies were made. Popular legend has it that the scenes set on the ice planet of Hoth were filmed where Tesco’s frozen food aisle now sits. Inside, the corridors running between the huge cavernous studios are almost entirely featureless. It’s not exactly a magical place.

In 1978, Kubrick filmed The Shining at Elstree, building the entire Overlook Hotel interior on Stages 3 and 4, with the exterior constructed on the backlot, with mountains of salt standing in for snow. It all now forms part of Tesco’s car park.

In a bizarre piece of trivia, one of the runners on the film was a local boy from Elstree named Simon Cowell, who would go on to international fame twenty years later. Although none of his TV shows were filmed at Elstree, there is now a prominent plaque to Cowell outside – the first film he worked on was The Return of the Saint, so it’s at least tangentially appropriate that his tribute is next to one for Roger Moore.

Despite these bright spots, the productions were sporadic, and the studios went through a number of different owners through the years. The other studios amalgamated, moved or wound-up; today, only Elstree Studios and BBC Elstree (the long-term home of Eastenders) remain.

In 1988, following numerous takeovers and an ongoing decline in revenues, the studios were bought by the property developer Brent Walker, who had dabbled in movies under the Goldcrest name. Under the guise of modernising and compacting the virtually derelict studios, they demolished six of the nine studios and sold the entire (now empty) backlot to Tesco. Despite a pledge to operate the studios for 25 years, Brent Walker ran into financial difficulty and decided to close the doors in 1995.

For three years, they tried to sell off the derelict site for use as a shopping centre, with the main opposition to their plan coming from a local campaign named Save Our Studios, run by the council’s Entertainment Officer Paul Welsh. As a lifelong film buff and Borehamwood resident, Welsh had seen at first hand how the industry failed to preserve or value its own heritage. He told the Elstree Studios website:

I’ve seen things thrown into skips that you could cry about. I’ve seen scripts discarded, props from Star Wars that would cost a fortune now to buy abandoned, documents from Hitchcock’s Blackmail dumped into a skip. In the late sixties they had a library of screen tests that they’d done on actors of the 1930s. Richard Harris, Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, a whole cast of people who’d gone through the studio, and an executive of the time just stopped by and said, ‘what’s the purpose of keeping the junk?’ and they just scrapped it all.

Partly due to the pressure from Walsh, Brent Walker sold the site in 1996 to Hertsmere Borough Council for £1.9million. Since then, the studios have been renovated, and the TV side rejuvenated. Within a decade, the studios were the home of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire and the Big Brother house, which moved from East London into a vast sunken water tank at the back of the studios, which was originally constructed for 1955’s Moby Dick.

In recent years, the movies have also returned, with recent productions at Elstree including The King’s Speech, Saving Private Ryan, Batman Begins, The Other Boleyn Girl, Notes on A Scandal, Tomorrow Never Dies and Kick Ass.

The town’s fortunes have always been linked to the rise and fall of the nearby studios, and the long, steady decline in the British film industry over the last forty years have been reflected in the surrounding area. Nowadays, Borehamwood is a long, bleak strip of charity shops, orange-hued greasy spoons, tatty pawn shops and grim, boarded-up frontages.

In 2006, the town attempted to celebrate its unique connection to British cinema history with a series of semi-successful council-led displays. Along the roads are a series of metal information boards dedicated to the stars who worked at the studios.

Chock-a-block with history, they’re placed in large, unkept brick flower beds outside the pubs and 24-hour newsagents. When I was there, no one was paying them any attention at all, and most people looked at me with curious puzzlement when I took my camera out to photograph them.

On the High Street, large banners proclaiming “Made in Elstree” (although technically it should be “Made at Elstree” as the films were all made in Borehamwood) show stills from of the iconic movies made at the studios – hence, A Clockwork Orange’s Alex stares down menacingly at the old people shuffling past the pawnbrokers, Chewbacca growls at the traffic streaming over one of the countless traffic-slowing ramps, and Darth Vader flutters proudly over a branch of Nando’s.

At the railway station is a miniature walk of fame with one star commemorating Harrison Ford – the man who famously referred to the area as “Boring-wood.” A completely lackluster paving slab, it’s a fitting tribute.

In the Tesco itself, the only reminder of its former use is an aisle of Star Wars toys – situated not far from where the film which inspired them was created thirty years before.

At the top of the Duke of York steps outside number 9 Carlton House Terrace, in a small walled-off enclosure and almost hidden behind the jumble of gardener’s paraphernalia wedged beside it, is the country’s only memorial to a Nazi.

There are mitigating circumstances, however – the most important of which being that this Nazi happened to be a dog.

Shortly after John Nash built Carlton House Terrace between 1827-1832, no.9 became the official residence of the Prussian ambassadors. Prussia House, as it became known, housed diplomats for almost a century before the outbreak of World War 1 forced them all out.

In 1920, however, the ambassadors representing Germany’s new Weimar Republic returned to Prussia House – despite occupation in the intervening years by America and the Swiss, the official history of the German Embassy claims that “everything was found in place as the last Ambassador of Imperial Germany, Prince Lichnowsky, had left it on 6 August 1914, including even the cigarettes in the silver case on the Ambassador’s desk.”

The Weimar Republic’s final chargé d’affaires was 51-year-old Leopold von Hoesch (1881-1936), an old-fashioned diplomat who had become the much-admired German ambassador in Paris after stints in Peking and Madrid.

Von Hoesch did much to improve Anglo-German relations throughout the early 1930s and won the admiration of both of the British foreign secretaries he worked alongside, Sir Anthony Eden and John Simon.

But a year after von Hoesch took up his post in London, the Weimar Republic was no more. In 1933, entirely by proxy rather than choice, von Hoesch became a representative of the Third Reich.

In February 1934, von Hoesch’s beloved terrier Giro died (some reports over the years have claimed he was electrocuted in the garden, but no reliable sources are given) and he was buried in the gardens.

His tombstone bore the inscription:

“GIRO”

EIN TREUER BEGLEITER! (A faithful companion!)

LONDON IM FEBRUAR 1934.

HOESCH.

Two years later, the Ambassador himself died in the bedroom of the house from a stroke. He was only 55, his life seemingly shortened by the strain of maintaining the Anglo-German relations that were being routinely and savagely tested by the new National Socialist ruling party with whom he was increasingly despairing of.

In his obituary – written in April 1936, at a time when the Nazis were already a worrying spectre in the pages of the newspapers each day – The Times celebrated von Hoesch’s traditional, cultured manner.

He spoke beautiful English in soft, modulated tones, and the theme of all his speeches was the cultivation of better Anglo-German relations…though a bachelor, von Hoesch entertained hospitably at the Embassy, and with his sincerity and personal charm made many friends among English statesmen. He had a distinguished bearing and was always particularly well dressed.

The British Government, in accordance with international diplomatic protocol, effectively gave him a state funeral on his way to the Dover-bound train from Victoria Station. The cortege was led by Grenadier Guards, British government ministers formed part of the funeral procession, and von Hoesch received a 19-gun salute in St. James’s Park bidding him farewell.

Some startling newsreel footage was taken as the funeral procession made its way down the Mall. At the top of the Duke of York steps, German Embassy staff gave the Nazi salute as von Hoesch’s coffin, wrapped in a swastika flag, headed out of Carlton House Terrace towards Buckingham Palace.

The coffin was taken to Germany on the British destroyer HMS Scout. After the triumphant display in London, not a single representative of the Nazi Party attended von Hoesch’s funeral in Berlin. And the next German ambassador couldn’t have been more different from the soft-spoken, charming von Hoesch.

Joachim von Ribbentrop was a key member of the Nazi regime, and while his time in London was short (he was back in Germany within a year), some of the more intriuging stories associated with his stay have proved impossible to confirm or deny.

It is known that Albert Speer oversaw the modernisation of No.9 Carlton House Terrace, but whether he also created a vast swastika mosaic on one of the floors has never been verified (it supposedly remains there to this day, hidden underneath the carpet.) Completely true is that while in London, Von Ribbentrop’s son Rudolf briefly attended Westminster School, where his classmate was Peter Ustinov.

But back to Giro, the unwilling Nazi (if we can entirely forget he was a dog, Giro was more correctly a member of the Weimar Republic.)

None of articles in The Times during von Hoesch’s life or at the time of his death  mention either the dog or the gravestone. In fact, the first mention of Giro is to be found in a small news item in December 1966.

At the time, builders were excavating a strip of land in front of no.9 Carlton House Terrace to create a deep underground car park which now cuts between the small patch of ground the gravestone is on and the building. A German man walking down the Duke of York steps noticed the gravestone propped up underneath one of the trees and recalled that von Hoesch was the former ambassador.

It seems likely that the gravestone was picked up from the gardens of the house by a builder as the excavations took place. Not wanting to see the little gravestone destroyed, he placed where it now stands today. At some point in the 1990s, the strange kennel with the misty plexiglass plastic front was fitted over the top to protect it from damage.

But however it got there, one thing is certain; wherever Giro’s mortal remains are now, they’re certainly not underneath that stone.

But I can’t help but feel that’s just as well. It means that little tombstone’s not simply a marker of where a dog is buried, but becomes something much bigger. It’s a memorial not just to a dog that was loved by its master, but to von Hoesch himself – and a testament to how love ultimately endures as hate withers.

When Von Ribbentrop looked out of the windows of 9 Carlton House Terrace in 1936, he may have envisaged a day when memorials to the Nazis covered the whole of London.

Hanged for war crimes a decade later, he probably never imagined that the last vestige of the regime he dedicated his life to would be the gravestone of a terrier that was already sitting in his back garden.

From 1768 until it was finally sold in 2002, Britain’s most famous publisher was run by a man by the name of John Murray.

John Murray wasn’t a single man – but seven men from the same family all of whom bore the same name (they are differentiated by a number, I to VII.) All but the first John Murray operated from a building at 50 Albemarle Street, Piccadilly, the outside of which still bears their name a decade after the company was bought and absorbed into Hodder Headline.

Renowned as an uncanny spotter of literary talent, John Murray II (1778-1843) moved the firm his father had started from Edinburgh to Albemarle Street in 1812, a year after he began publishing the works of Lord Byron (1788-1824).

John Murray II

Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage had been an instant sensation, selling out in just five days and turning the 24-year-old into a superstar of the age. In Byron’s own words, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” For the whole of his life and for many centuries afterwards, he was simply regarded as the greatest poet the world had ever known.

The publisher and the poet met for the first time in the upstairs drawing room of the offices – a room which would later play host to one of the most infamous incidents in the history of lost English literature.

As the 1820s advanced, so too did the fortunes of Murray’s firm. He published Jane Austen – Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – along with Washington Irving and Sir Walter Scott. His regular afternoon teas at the house – known as “Four O’Clock Friends” – ensured the house became a meeting point for the biggest and brightest names in literary London.

For Byron, however, the passing years had not been so profitable. His name had become associated with whispered allegations throughout society of sexual promiscuity, affairs with married women, siring illegitimate children, homosexuality, sodomy and even incest – and the whispers were getting louder. In 1816, Byron left England for good, spending the last eight years of his short life in exile abroad.

Byron in Albanian dress, 1813

Byron died in Greece in 1824, struck down with a fever while leading a troop of soldiers against the Ottoman Empire in the War of Greek Independence. In death, the formerly scandalised Byron became a hero, celebrated for his passion, untamed nature, arrogance, wilfulness, tortured soul, tangled love-life and untimely death. Not just the template for the Romantic hero, Byron’s very name became a by-word for the noble virtues and tragic flaws he encapsulated.

Once his body was shipped back to England (with rumours rife that his heart had been removed and buried in Greece), he was refused burial at Westminster Abbey, who cited his “questionable morality.” One of the greatest of all English poets, Byron wasn’t even awarded a memorial in the Abbey until 1969.

With the doors of the Abbey closed to him, a long funeral procession was organised to take his body from London to Hucknall in Nottinghamshire (close to his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey.) As Byron’s body passed through Highgate, the cortege was witnessed by his elderly contemporary Coleridge, who was standing alongside the young pharmacist’s assistant from whom he made his regular, surreptitious purchases of opium.

On 17th May 1824, a month after Byron’s death, John Murray would participate in one of the most notorious acts in the annals of literature in the upstairs drawing room of 50 Albemarle Street.

During his exile in 1822, Byron named the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852) as his literary executor and handed him a manuscript of his personal memoirs which he wanted to be published at a later date.

Thomas Moore

But with Byron dead, and the public clamouring for anything bearing his name, Murray made a decision. Having been presented with the two volumes of Byron’s memoirs by Moore, he decided he had to act.

Byron’s memoirs had to be destroyed.

With the agreement of five of Byron’s friends and executors of his will (and with the only opposition coming from Moore), the men set about pulling apart the pages and burning the pages in the fireplace of the drawing room.

Whatever Byron had written, Murray believed the memoirs were so scandalous they would forever damage Byron’s reputation, and possibly his own should he ever publish them. Even Moore, who in 1832 wrote a biography of Byron and was heavily criticised for allowing the memoirs to be destroyed, never divulged their contents.

Of what Byron wrote, which shocked Murray so deeply, we know only one thing; it left the house at Albemarle Street via the chimney.

In destruction, Byron’s memoirs gained infamy; they became the most celebrated work of literature that no-one would ever read.

For centuries afterwards, a massive portrait of Byron has been hanging above the very fireplace which rendered his final words into silent spots of ash and soot.

John Murray VI in front of the Byron portrait…and fireplace

The Elephant Man’s Hat

October 23, 2011

Arriving at Whitechapel – the single place in London still most closely associated with events which took place there over a century ago – it’s easy to feel you’ve stepped back in time. Arriving at the Underground station, you step out into a narrow railway shed made of wood and huge steel rivets. The only changes to the station since it opened in 1896 have been cosmetic ones; the structure still looks much the same as it did 115 years ago.

Directly opposite stands the London Hospital, which, like the station is much unchanged. It doesn’t take much – in my case, the sepia setting on my camera – to conjure up the East End of the 1880s (although it didn’t have the prefix ‘Royal’ until 1990, when it celebrated it’s 250th year.)

Even more remarkably, aside from the station and the hospital, the old shops next to the station remain untouched. While the occupants have changed countless times over the century, the fabric – the bricks and mortar – remain the same.

Looking back across the road from the London Hospital, the view is much the same as it would have been in the 1880s, when a Dorset-born surgeon named Frederick Treves (1853-1923) first came to work there as a Lecturer on Anatomy.

It was in this house – No. 259, Whitechapel Road, now the UKAY International Saree Centre, with an immigration service, mini cab office, travel agent and homeopathy clinic in the rooms above – where Treves first saw the man with whom his name would forever be associated.

Joseph Merrick (1862-1890) – better known as The Elephant Man – is, along with Jack The Ripper, one of the men most closely associated with Whitechapel. And in a small museum attached to the hospital in the crypt of St Augustine in Newark Street are the sole handful of items associated with his short life which still exist.

None are more immediately evocative of his unique life than the hat and mask which he supposedly wore on the night he first visited the London Hospital in 1884.

Born in Leicester, “at the age of 5 years”, bony lumps and thick skin started to deformed and enlarge Merrick’s head, face, arms and legs. He was 11 when his mother died (by his own account, she doted on him) and just 12 when he left school and went to work “at Messrs. Freeman’s Cigar Manufacturers, and worked there about two years, but my right hand got too heavy for making cigars, so I had to leave them.”

As Merrick’s physical afflictions became progressively worse, work became harder to find (his father had once sent him out to sell products door to door, with predictable results) and he spent four years in the Leicester Union workhouse. Merrick recalled his time there with dread, and realised the only way to leave was to make a living. He realised that the deformities which prevented him from working were so extreme they could actually be used to his advantage. From the workhouse, he contacted two local showmen, music hall comic Sam Torr and music hall proprietor J. Ellis, with a plan to exhibit himself.

So thought I, I’ll get my living by being exhibited about the country. Knowing Mr. Sam Torr, Gladstone Vaults, Wharf Street, Leicester, went in for Novelties, I wrote to him, he came to see me, and soon arranged matters, recommending me to Mr. Ellis, Bee-hive Inn, Nottingham, from whom I received the greatest kindness and attention.

It was Torr, Ellis and a travelling showman ‘Little George’ Hitchcock who decided to present Merrick as ‘The Elephant Man, Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant’ as they toured around the East Midlands.

Joseph Merrick, 1888

Realising he only had a limited regional circuit to display Merrick on before exhausting the audiences, Torr contacted Tom Norman (1860-1930), a London-based showman who specialised in presenting human oddities like the Skeleton Woman, The Balloon Headed Baby and Mademoiselle Electra (billed as “The Only Electric Lady — A Lady Born Full of Electricity”, she gave people an electric shock while shaking their hands.)

Tom Norman in his later successful career as an auctioneer

Norman specialised in penny gaffs – small rooms where sub-music hall, amateur entertainment turns could be seen for the entrance fee of a penny, which, by the 1880s, had largely fallen out of fashion. He took over Merrick’s management at the end of 1884 – although he was initially so shocked by Merrick’s appearance, he was reluctant to display him, thinking he looked too horrific to be a successful novelty. Thus Merrick came to be displayed in a vacant greengrocer’s at 123 Whitechapel Road (the road number has since been changed to 259.)

To accompany the display, a 3-page pamphlet – The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick – was printed (it is where the above quotes are taken from.) Alongside claiming that his features were the result of his mother being startled by an elephant while pregnant, he added that:

The measurement around my head is 36 inches, there is a large substance of flesh at the back as large as a breakfast cup, the other part in a manner of speaking is like hills and valleys, all lumped together, while the face is such a sight that no one could describe it. The right hand is almost the size and shape of an Elephant’s foreleg, measuring 12 inches round the wrist and 5 inches round one of the fingers; the other hand and arm is no larger than that of a girl ten years of age, although it is well proportioned. My feet and legs are covered with thick lumpy skin, also my body, like that of an Elephant, and almost the same colour, in fact, no one would believe until they saw it, that such a thing could exist.

While he might not have been the sole author of the pamphlet (at the very least, it bears a showman’s hand embellishing the truth), it is a common misconception that Merrick was a cruelly-treated victim of the showmen (which is how he was frequently portrayed later in popular culture, and, indeed, in the memoir of Treves.) Merrick was not just a willing partner in the enterprise, but the man who came up with the plan of exhibiting himself in the first place. He also shared in the profits and had been saving as much as he could in the hope of buying his own house.

In making my first appearance before the public, who have treated me well — in fact I may say I am as comfortable now as I was uncomfortable before.

But by 1884, the display of human oddities was becoming unpopular and the Elephant Man display at Whitechapel was shut by the police just a few weeks after it opened.

One of the visitors before it was closed was the 31-year-old Frederick Treves, who had been urged to visit by a younger surgeon friend.

He described first seeing Merrick in his 1922 memoirs The Elephant Man and Other Reminscences (published at the end of his life, they contain numerous errors which many put down to old age, including Treves stating that Merrick’s first name was ‘John’.)

The whole of the front of the shop, with the exception of the door, was hidden by a hanging sheet of canvas on which was the announcement that the Elephant Man was to be seen within and that the price of admission was twopence. Painted on the canvas in primitive colours was a life-size portrait of the Elephant Man. This very crude production depicted a frightful creature that could only have been possible in a nightmare. It was the figure of a man with the characteristics of an elephant. The transfiguration was not far advanced. There was still more of the man than of the beast. This fact—that it was still human—was the most repellent attribute of the creature. There was nothing about it of the pitiableness of the misshapened or the deformed, nothing of the grotesqueness of the freak, but merely the loathsome insinuation of a man being changed into an animal. Some palm trees in the background of the picture suggested a jungle and might have led the imaginative to assume that it was in this wild that the perverted object had roamed.

When I first became aware of this phenomenon the exhibition was closed, but a well-informed boy sought the proprietor in a public house and I was granted a private view on payment of a shilling. The shop was empty and grey with dust. Some old tins and a few shrivelled potatoes occupied a shelf and some vague vegetable refuse the window. The light in the place was dim, being obscured by the painted placard outside. The far end of the shop—where I expect the late proprietor sat at a desk—was cut off by a curtain or rather by a red tablecloth suspended from a cord by a few rings. The room was cold and dank, for it was the month of November. The year, I might say, was 1884. The showman pulled back the curtain and revealed a bent figure crouching on a stool and covered by a brown blanket. In front of it, on a tripod, was a large brick heated by a Bunsen burner. Over this the creature was huddled to warm itself. It never moved when the curtain was drawn back. Locked up in an empty shop and lit by the faint blue light of the gas jet, this hunched-up figure was the embodiment of loneliness. It might have been a captive in a cavern or a wizard watching for unholy manifestations in the ghostly flame. Outside the sun was shining and one could hear the footsteps of the passers-by, a tune whistled by a boy and the companionable hum of traffic in the road.

The showman—speaking as if to a dog—called out harshly: “Stand up!” The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground. There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease, as well as mutilations and contortions of the body depending upon like causes; but at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed. He was naked to the waist, his -feet were bare, he wore a pair of threadbare trousers that had once belonged to some fat gentleman’s dress suit.

Treves arranged with Norman to examine Merrick at the hospital opposite the following day – but there was a problem.

I became at once conscious of a difficulty. The Elephant Man could not show himself in the streets. He would have been mobbed by the crowd and seized by the police. He was, in fact, as secluded from the world as the Man with the Iron Mask. He had, however, a disguise, although it was almost as startling as he was himself. It consisted of a long black cloak which reached to the ground. Whence the cloak had been obtained I cannot imagine. I had only seen such a garment on the stage wrapped about the figure of a Venetian bravo. The recluse was provided with a pair of bag-like slippers in which to hide his deformed feet. On his head was a cap of a kind that never before was seen. It was black like the cloak, had a wide peak, and the general outline of a yachting cap. As the circumference of Merrick’s head was that of a man’s waist, the size of this headgear may be imagined. From the attachment of the peak a grey flannel curtain hung in front of the face. In this mask was cut a wide horizontal slit through which the wearer could look out. This costume, worn by a bent man hobbling along with a stick, is probably the most remarkable and the most uncanny that has as yet been designed. I arranged that Merrick should cross the road in a cab, and to insure his immediate admission to the college I gave him my card.

In Norman’s autobiography, he stated Merrick went to the hospital “two or three” times, but then refused to go any more, feeling “like an animal in a cattle market.”

Following a disastrous tour of Brussels in 1886, where Merrick was abandoned by a promoter who ran off with his money and had to make his own way back to England, he found himself at Liverpool Street Station. Alone, the object of much unwanted curiosity, and fighting to make himself understood to the police, who’d dragged him away to stop the inquisitive crowds gathering around him, he handed over the card Treves had given him two years before.

Treves was contacted and the two men returned to the London Hospital, where Merrick was signed in – his age was given as 26, not 24 – and where he was eventually given permanent quarters. Unable to do much to help him, Treves displayed Merrick to the great and good – as much a showman as Sam Torr or Tom Norman.

Merrick entertained visitors much as did in the vacant greengrocer’s across the road, although now those who came to see him were aristocrats and did their best to hide their horror. He wrote them charming, courteous and childlike letters once they’d gone – the only surviving example known is on display in the museum.

Next to it is a cardboard church which Merrick made for the actress Madge Kendall (1848-1935), who was a prominent supporter and fundraiser for him, although it’s uncertain if they ever actually met (she did, however, send someone along to his room to teach him basket weaving after he’d expressed an interest in learning.)

The German printed paper models were frequent gifts from Merrick, who was able to write and work with his largely undeformed left arm, but again, this is the only one known to survive.

Merrick died in his sleep in his basement room in the East Wing overlooking Bedford Square on the afternoon of 11 April 1890, the result of a dislocated neck caused by the weight of his head. Due to spinal deformities, he had to sleep on his knees with his head forward; on the night he died, he had lain down – Treves wrote in his memoirs that Joseph had always wanted to sleep “like other people.” He was 27.

The coroner at his inquest was Wynne Edwin Baxter, who had come to prominence during the notorious Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. Nothing belonging to Baxter is in the museum, but the gloves of pathologist Sir Thomas Openshaw (1856-1929), who identified the piece of kidney sent by the Ripper to Inspector Lusk, are on display, along with his collection of Masonic medals.

The Elephant Man and the Ripper represented the two extremes of humanity in Whitechapel in the 1880s. Both became world famous under their pseudonyms, both are immediately associated with Whitechapel, and both form part of the underbelly of poverty and misfortune in London during the 1880s.

But while Merrick was an ordinary, decent man with a face that made him seem inhuman, the Ripper was his mirror image; a man without a face who came to represent inhumanity. That both should have lived out their very different lives in the same place at the same time is one of London’s strangest stories.

Merrick’s skeleton is kept by the Royal College of Surgeons, but it has never been on public display.

The Royal London Hospital Museum is in the former crypt of St Philip’s Church, Newark Street, Whitechapel, London, E1 2AA. Nearest tube: Whitechapel.

Note: My thanks to Mae for correcting a couple of errors in this piece. Her fascinating site dedicated to Merrick is at http://www.josephcareymerrick.com/

King’s Cross Airport

October 23, 2011

Here’s a fantastic vision from 1931 – an airport sitting on top of King’s Cross Station.

Designed by architect Charles W. Glover, the new Central Airport for London was launched in an article in the Illustrated London News in 1931, and Glover presented a model at the Institution of Civil Engineers in June. It was to be built over the railway sidings just north of St Pancras. It would have cost some £5million.

It was envisonaged that planes would approach down a new ‘Aerial Way’ above the Pentonville Road, landing on one of the half-mile concrete runways (which look like spokes on a cartwheel.) In the 1930s, London had no skyscrapers, so the approach would have been obstacle free.

The “Aerial King’s Cross” would see both regular and private flights; businessmen who owned their own small planes would be able to store them in garages under the runways, which would be brought up by lifts when they were going to be flown. Passengers were taken up to the planes in much the same way, via lifts from the buildings below which made up the rest of the urban airfield.

Planes would taxi around the rim of the wheel until they got clearance to take off from the runways – which, due to the spoke design, were ingeniously laid out to allow take-offs and landings in eight different directions.

There were two problems with the concept, though: firstly, the design meant the runways could not be lengthened at a later date, and secondly, if a plane careered off one of the numerous edges, it would be a catastrophe.

Glover continued to try and develop the King’s Cross railway sidings when the airport plan dissipated. In 1961, a remarkable piece of Pathe news footage (which you can see here) features Glover’s attempts to rebuild Covent Garden market on the site – complete with a helicopter landing pad on the top.

After initial excitement, the proposal went nowhere. In 1935, the Corporation of London was considering buying up land for a city airport along the south bank of the Thames near London Bridge and Tower Bridge. Proposals were mooted to build a landing strip in the Thames itself, and in 1945, plans were drawn up by Kenneth Lindy and Winton Lewis  for a cruciform airstrip built across the roofs of five skyscrapers in Liverpool Street.

It wouldn’t be until 1987, when London City Airport was opened in Docklands, that London had its first City airport.

The “Aerial King’s Cross” features in Felix Barker and Ralph Hyde’s excellent 1982 work London As It Might Have Been, a collection of architect’s plans for London which were proposed but never built. Additional information from Airports: A Cemtury of Architecture by Hugh Pearman (2004.)

Walking down a long curving stretch of tarmac road, with buildings towering over you on both sides, you’d be forgiven for not finding the walk to the most famous garden in the country very picturesque.

The bend of the path means you can’t see where you’re heading to. You walk along such a tight curve that you can’t see whatever’s coming up until you’re upon it, a situation made stranger by the fact the road looks almost identical for its entire length.

It might not look like it, but the photo below shows a bit situated about two minutes further on that the one above (doubters can compare the concrete steps in the first with the metal ones below.)

And suddenly, after about five minutes of featureless trudging and without any fanfare, there’s a small break in the wall and buildings to the left.

Beyond is something green.

It’s the somewhat underwhelming entrance to the most famous garden in Britain.

Blue Peter had been running on the BBC for sixteen years before a small outdoor plot sandwiched between the buildings at BBC TV Centre in Wood Lane was designated as the Blue Peter Garden.

In 1974, the show’s editor Biddy Baxter realised many of the show’s young viewers were living in flats and would be the first generation of youngsters to grow up without access to gardens of their own. Through the Blue Peter garden, the show would teach these gardenless children about the plants, animals and the outdoor world which the council-built high-rise blocks denied them.

The garden’s designer (and man to this day most closely associated with it) was Percy Thrower (1913-1988), the then-presenter of the BBC’s Gardener’s World. The country’s first “celebrity gardener”, Thrower’s garden was unveiled on the show by the presenters Peter Purves, John Noakes and Lesley Judd on 21st May 1974.

Percy Thrower and John Noakes in the Blue Peter Garden, 1975

Thrower redesigned the garden in 1979  to look like an Italian sunken garden. He added a fishpond and small benches which the presenters could deliver links from.

A bust celebrating Petra, the first and most famous of all the Blue Peter dogs, was  erected in the same year outside BBC TV Centre. Sculpted by William Timyn (who also made the statue of Guy the Gorilla at London Zoo), it was moved into the garden in 1984 when TV Centre was extended.

Pleasingly, when I snapped the memorial, the rain in the air gave me one of those pleasing ghostly smears that would so excite Yvette Fielding on Most Haunted – herself a former Blue Peter presenter.

But the most famous moment in the Blue Peter Garden’s history occurred on the night of the 21st November 1983 when the garden was badly vandalised. There had been previous incidents in 1978 and 1980, but they had been minor.

The TV show opened with a sombre Janet Ellis introducing still photographs of the damage – an ornamental sundial had been toppled, plants uprooted, pots smashed and oil was poured into the pond, killing all the fish.

Simon Groom at the vandalised fishpond, November 1983 (Photo: BBC)

A distraught Percy Thrower appeared onscreen, tears welling up in his eyes, to say that the perpetrators must have been “mentally ill.”

The perpetrators were never identified, but in 2000, the footballer Les Ferdinand, who grew up on the nearby White City Estate, appeared on a BBC Choice show called 45 Minutes, saying he had “helped a few people over the wall.” Following a front page in The Sun proclaiming “Blue Peter Garden was Trashed By Soccer Star Ferdinand’s Gang”, Ferdinand recanted his claims.

In the intervening years, George the Tortoise was buried in the garden along with all manner of time capsules, and the garden’s been decorated with all manner of statues and sculptures celebrating the show.

Perhaps there’s nothing that sums up the show’s legacy better than the large mural by the gate on the way in – an absolutely charming picture of the show’s presenters from the very beginning.

It’s as if Keith Haring had been brought up a nice middle-class boy in W12.

But the latest development in the garden’s story is not a positive one.

It’s gone.

The BBC announced in July 2009 that they would be moving the Blue Peter Garden to Salford, as part of the BBC’s move out of London to Manchester.

Percy Thrower’s daughter Margaret told the Shropshire Star: “It’s sad but things move on and things change and you cannot stop so-called progress. I know a lot of the older generation who watched dad on TV will be sad to see it happen but that is how life is. The garden is part of history and part of tradition but a lot of the younger children don’t value the tradition [their] forefathers have created for them.”

In February 2011, it was decided that the new garden would be situated on the roof of the BBC’s Northern headquarters. As far as the old one was concerned, there were talks of it being opened to the public – as it backs on to a park, the wall at the back could be knocked down to allow public access.

In July 2011, when the BBC announced that TV Centre was officially up for sale, I went along and took the photos above. Two months later, I popped back – and the garden has been almost entirely dismantled and put into storage.

Remember the iconic sunken pond?

Well, it’s been filled in and turfed over.

It’s now less a garden and more a stretch of lawn.

There are all sorts of reasons the Blue Peter Garden has gone.

Now Blue Peter’s moved to Salford, the garden is no longer needed. The garden’s probably never been less relevant to children than it is today. And yes, the only reason any of us care about it is largely due to a pointless and sentimental nostalgia for the TV of our youth.You can’t preserve things for ever. The BBC’s a business.

But there’s something sad about such a famous patch of ground – a place started with such noble intentions and used to inform and entertain so many generations of British children for so many years – just being shut down and grassed over with so little fanfare.

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.”

St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley was opened in 1854 to cater for London’s ever-increasing numbers of dead. The city churchyards of Euston, King’s Cross, Tottenham Court Road, Camden, Islington, Highbury and Kentish Town were full, and to cater for the burials of the council’s citizens, vast out-of-town burial grounds were erected on the outskirts of London.

While St Pancras and Islington followed in the footsteps of Highgate, Nunhead, Kensal Green et al, these were all private enterprises, and this was London’s first publicly-owned cemetery. At 88 acres, it also claims the title of London’s largest.  

For the first time, Londoners found that when they died, they would now be laid to rest in a place they had never lived.

The first Pearly King John Croft is to be found somewhere in the tangle of old headstones and ivy that makes up the oldest part of the cemetery; so too are the pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, Cora Crippen (a semi-professional music hall turn who was most probably murdered by her husband John Crippen) and the Cafe de Paris bandleader Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, who died when a bomb fell on the club in World War 2 (his ghost is supposed to haunt the venue.)

Even people who had already been buried within the boroughs weren’t safe once the new cemetery opened; many old graves were disinterred and the remains shunted over to the new cemetery. One particularly unpleasant reason for this is trumpeted on a triumphant memorial plaque: Upper Street in Islington was being widened, and the old burial grounds were in the way.

Like most of the large nineteenth-century cemeteries, upkeep of the grounds has been sporadic and often ineffective, and the earliest parts are thick with ivy, beech trees and brambles. One memorial which has been kept clear, however, is that of William French.

Almost nothing is known about French, other than what is written on his memorial. The statue is known as “the Highgate Dog.”

Sacred to the memory of William French, aged 50, who lost his life on July 13th 1896 while saving a dog from drowning in Highgate Ponds. This monument, erected in commeration of his brave deed, was raised by public subscription, and was contributed to by all classes of lovers of dumb animals.