London: Nostalgia in the Now
THE NOSTALGIC FACE OF A NATION AND THE CITY
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Nostalgia hangs thick in the air of the UK and especially with London. When I return to my spiritual home (Heathrow) literally a city within a city, a Vatican for avgeeks, I find British Airways are not only still flying the jumbo but some are in retro colour schemes recalling 1983 (Negus & Negus designed red union flag fin) and ’85 (Landor’s dark blue fin replacing the red and coupled with the BA ‘to fly, to serve’ crest).
Even the radio is playing songs from Human League (Sound of the Crowd), and Herbie Hancock’s Rockit. It’s almost like one of those weird films where you’ve somehow ended up in a time vortex or parallel universe. If it were the early eighties outside I would at least be happy with the music, well, most of it.
So what is it we Brits love about nostalgia? No it isn’t just me. Both Life on Mars (set in the seventies) and more appropriately here, its eighties sequel Ashes to Ashes have proven to be one of the most watched TV shows of the mid-late noughties.
And as the ultimate nod to nostalgia, early eighties style guide The Face is back in print and after Brexit (whenever that is) UK passports will revert to navy blue. No wonder British Airways are running a retro livery or two, soon they’ll be bringing their Tridents and Tristars out of retirement and The Sweeney will be back on the box (we’ve already got Doctor Who and The Onedin Line!)
Then there are those London stock brick houses, a distinctive colouration only found in London (hence the name) and the south east. Now add the scent of Caribbean chicken, Indian curries and freshly cut grass.
Next, look skyward to the constant hum and never ending influx of overhead planes scraping the skyline, swinging into finals for Heathrow or lifting out of city airport near Canary Wharf.
At night, romantics can watch for those electric blue sparks and screeches of trains pulling out of Charing Cross (or any other station lining the Thames).
YOUR OWN PERSONAL LONDON
My own nostalgia with London begins in 1977, the year of the 125 Inter City Train, the Silver Jubilee and mere months after the London Underground connected the central city with Heathrow (now literally a living museum as illustrated by the historic poster above).
The London of the eighties was a succession of transitory glances. Signposts for the future. They would be delivered in the London of the nineties, Earls Court, a homebase of sorts, Bayswater, Notting Hill and Victoria. Highgate, Holland Park, High Street Ken in time all became familiar sights.
London post 2000 drew again from Earls Court where I witness the last commercial Concorde flight, a silhouette spear of black pin pointing the way home to her final destination.
Soho and Chinatown, another map to an unseen future. London is also a city where long standing friendships were born and some lost. Reunions occur, everything feels good but odd meeting people I’ve not seen for nearly ten years or in some cases over 20!
NOSTALGIA IN THE NOW (2019)
It feels a little like a Jubilee of sorts now, in high tourist season, the brass bands play near the Cutty Sark, the fairground is swirling in constant motion and no end of ‘vintage’ imagery catches my attention. If Heathrow is a Vatican for avgeeks, then Greenwich is a nostalgia freaks Mecca.
Two markets; one specifically named ‘vintage’ sell anything from film posters to jewellery to radios to signs suggesting afternoon tea with scones, jam and cream. Warwick Leadley deals in antique maps and prints. A third and smaller Clock Tower market also trades in vintage gear.
Unusually I find myself based south of the river in eastern Lewisham, home to the band Japan and it’s in Greenwich Market’s Flood Gallery that I breeze through photos of the early eighties shot by the band’s drummer and resident documentary photographer Steve Jansen. I am fortunate to reach the gallery as they are putting up the images for a kind of impromptu sneak preview.
The shots are by and large members of Japan and some of the Japanese musicians that became associated with them (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Masami Tsuchiya) at a time they were very young and seeing the world from the perspective of a touring musician.
At 21 I was lucky to get to Paris but these guys were half a world away, seeing the land of the rising sun first hand. The accompanying book (produced by the gallery) reaches the early nineties and there’s a couple of studio shots from recording the one off 1987 recording by the Dolphin Brothers.
Other than that are glimpses of the London I know (Kensington and Holland Park) and Japan (which I don’t). The most striking for me are the shots of Richard Barbieri in a Japanese cafe and David Sylvian which looks like it may have influenced the film Lost in Translation. Most exhibitions run for a few months but this one is only on for the week so my arrival back in Blighty alongside my location was very fortuitous.
Lewisham and south east London generally receive nothing but bad press but a few walks leave me pleasantly surprised. Blackheath village and its broad Heath is to London what Clifton and the downs are to Bristol. It’s also where No-Man’s Together We’re Stranger album cover was shot and the World Heritage Site of Greenwich Park lies on the edge sloping down to the Thames.
The only downside is you’ll have to cross the busy A2 (the main artery to Dover and Europe beyond) to reach it. Chances are that if you’ve been on a coach bound for France or elsewhere in Europe then you’ll know this stretch of road and the Heath. Further more, if you’re a fan of the London Marathon this is where it begins.
ARCHITECTURE BUILT FOR THE FUTURE
Despite its traditions London doesn’t just trade on its history, it is constantly moving forward. Architecturally you could take thousands of photos without even trying.
A quick walk around the clusters of glass facades in Blackfriars Road, Canary Wharf and around Liverpool Street will confirm no end of geometric wonders in towers, arches (70 St Mary Axe), curves, points, stations (cross rail), new builds and some regeneration projects.
Battersea Power Station sails by in the night barely recognizable beneath a set of aerial red stars. The Shard, London Bridge station and the Walkie Talkie building – 20 Fenchurch Street – all missed out on last year while transiting to and from Cardiff are visited including the striking Sky Garden which is well worth a visit.
The Easter Island face like structure of 1 Blackfriars with protruding ‘nose’ and the patterns of white diamonds detailing the (future) Bankside Hotel brush skyward shoulders with 240 Blackfriars, not to mention the More London complex and the enhanced Tate Modern (see below).
LONDON: MUSIC AND BOOKS
What about the music? The songs that soundtrack our lives or more so the format we hear them on. Strange that currently, in our bubble like listening booths of iPods and blue tooth technology that the CD which industry and retail alike were quick to usher in is now in decline and vinyl is making a resolute resurgence! (Word is it’s outsold CDs for the first time since 1986! Nostalgia in the Now in action). In Greenwich I come across Casbah Records and a Music & Video Exchange.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much ICEHOUSE in one place in the UK before, even in their eighties heyday. These were not just UK editions but American, Aussie and NZ pressings including the original Flowers ‘We Can Get Together’ single in fold out sleeve – which I believe is very rare! So obviously someone having a clear out.
Extraordinary for a band that even most rock encyclopaedia’s don’t donate any space to anymore. As a footnote, the band name plastic divider in store even gives them an exclamation mark e.g. like early Ultravox! Not seen that before either.
But £60 for a vinyl copy of Tears for Fears Elemental! Now that really is worth an exclamation mark. An original edition of Eno’s Music for Airports is a snip at £45. Though the Music for Installations box is offered at £230!
Books? One visit to a bookstore and I already had another legion of the printed word to read and that was only books on or about London! Just as well nothing of interest was showing at any of my known cinema haunts.
Various bookstores reveal pages about the underground, Secret London, a book by Londoners themselves, Vinyl London (great to read about the rise of the vinyl cafe but alas none within walking distance), Night Walking which made me recall my own night walks around Bayswater during 1996. The year of the Manic’s Everything Must Go and Underworld’s Born Slippy.
Starved of sleep in a bunk bed – someone had etched ‘Made in Auschwitz’ into its metal frame – a naive bravery or perhaps in my newly graduated notes for what goes down in the big smoke after dark or just misguided fool hardiness?
The black youth who drops a broken bottle crossing the road ahead of me, the woman crying in the square – what was the back story there? Further potential reading comes thick and fast; Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless and David Stubbs’s Mars by 1980 about electronic music. What is it with Mars and electronic music or was Bowie to blame?
LONDON MUSEUMS REVISITED
The south bank is home to some of London’s largest cultural hubs; Tate Modern – a former power station now becomes a super enlarged powerhouse of the arts bolstered by the ten storey Blavatnik Building, The South Bank Centre, and the Royal Festival Hall are anchored either side of Waterloo bridge.
The Design Museum has since moved north into the old Commonwealth building on Kensington High Street. It’s a striking setting for it and even better is now free to enter, save for the special exhibitions like KUBRICK.
There’s some wonderful stuff including the Motorway typography design, the walkman, iPods and iPhones, and what should show up but the same Brian Eno album that’s for sale above – Music for Airports. There’s also a mock Tube train and guess where it’s would be destination is.. it had to be Heathrow (a literal airport and I do love it when my interests converge like this).
Meanwhile over on the south bank, Modern is showing exhibitions about media and another detailing cities through a set of artists from as many. I learn of artists I knew nothing about (Cildo Meireles, the late Mirtha Dermisache, and Naoya Hatakeyama from Brazil, Argentina and Japan respectively) and that’s the great thing about culture; there is always something unknown waiting to be discovered.
Meireles (tower of) Babel is astonishing, a collection of radios playing simultaneously and that got me thinking of Brian Eno’s comment that there is all of this stuff in different languages being broadcast all the time, literally being sent out into the ether.
THE BARBICAN AND THE GARDEN
Due to London’s chronic transport system it takes a week to get myself back across London’s lifeblood (the mighty Thames river) to meet up with a long lost friend and the Barbican. Two buses both thwarted by urban disease, a police blockade and a change of destination.
It’s easy to cast off a sarcastic or blasé curse, but London is an A-list city and things happen in such places. North I must go and there re-discover old haunts, though my navigation is a little rusty.
Near the Barbican is the trendy Shoreditch and I stop by to visit Holywell Lane, former home to John Foxx’s Garden studio where the album of the same name was recorded as well as Lloyd Cole and the Commotions cult classic Rattlesnakes among others.
Holywell itself was immortalised in song on Foxx’s 2009 album My Lost City. The lion doorknob from those days is retained and in Bloomsbury’s Curzon Cinema the grey of Metamatic (picture below) and its opening song Plaza is brought to life probably unintentionally though a happy coincidence.
On the west side of town High Street Kensington looks almost identical (Snow + Rock, Trailfinders, McDonald’s) save for the Tower Records which is now a UNI QLO. The biggest changes lie just off it.
Cafe Nero’s slender glass ode to futurism has already gone, a temporary blip in London’s architectural history, dissolved like the coffee it served. Likewise Holland Park’s Icehouse has melted away (metaphorically speaking).
Abingdon Road (mentioned in Voyage of Nomad) remains more or less the same, and back onto home turf (as far as London goes) for Earls Court Road. Collingham Place where the Silver Fern backpackers hostel of yore (also written about in VON) once stood is now an unassuming block of flats.
Keeping up with the Japan (band) links I make a slight detour to Holland Park’s Kyoto Garden and Stanhope Gardens, both nice spots, the latter a stones throw from the V&A. I would have been quite happy to live there and wonder why they moved! Bad vibes, memories, intrusive fans, rising rents or all of the above?
SOHO AND CHINATOWN
I dip into SOHO to check the lay of the land; notably Berwick Street’s record stores. A spruced up Sister Ray and Reckless are still going. The former is playing Bat For Lashes Lost Girls and it sounds fantastically eighties in the way CHVRCHES do, which is ok by me. Of course I’m a bit biased.
The surrounding SOHO streets have also been gentrified with some of the grotty open doorways for inner city prostitutes seemingly disappeared, as has Tower Records on Piccadilly (building currently vacant).
The last time I chanced on Chinatown I had never set foot in China. My reason this time to try and maintain some connections with the middle kingdom, its culture and its people (at least some of them). A community centre lies opposite the back entrance to the Prince Charles cinema.
Upstairs through sound proof doors, all sorts of musical noises emanate from a distant room as well as a Chinese class (though I’ve no idea whether it was Mandarin or Cantonese) and a lunch special which I’ll get round to in due course.
As a marker of China’s phenomenal rise on the global stage, when I was a boy in 1978, as far as I can ascertain there were no Chinese airlines serving Heathrow (save for a visiting Trident belonging to CAAC since split into many of China’s leading aviation brands in 1988 – I’m talking Air China, China Southern and China Eastern among others).
As of 2019 no less than nine airlines including Cathay Pacific, Shenzhen Airlines and EVA Air make vapour trails for the capital. By comparison only three survive from America. A Heathrow devoid of Pan Am and TWA seemed absurd in my youth but both would meet sad conclusions.
In 2019 like my last proper visit in 2011 the city is familiar yet refreshed and modern. A decade bookended by London and its painterly are London’s Dorian Gray, they never age; it could easily be 1978. Airline liveries and ‘equipment’ may change but the vibe remains. The city beneath constantly moving, shifting like a time lapse ballet. Nostalgia hangs thick in the air of the UK, especially with London and I love it!
AFTERSHOCK: SOUTH BANK AND VICTORIA 2020/2021
Of course this was all before the black cloud of the pandemic cast its shadow on us all. During lockdown in 2020 I really wanted to go and shoot some pictures of the city 28 Days Later style; deserted, dystopian. After all how many times are you going to see London like that? But I did what the powers that be said, stayed put.
In September I turned 50 and went to meet a friend on the South Bank. It was shocking how many people (tourists and locals alike) were not in the slightest concerned wearing no face masks or social distancing – this was during a break between lockdowns – but was also pretty standard behaviour. Still is.
This summer (2021) enroute to the north of England I hastily snapped some shots of the covid info graphics at both Victoria train and coach stations. I have never seen the latter so deserted! But there are unexpected benefits…
for one the toilets are now free from the annoying turnstiles that don’t really work with bags (see the Sofia blog) and also no need to pay anymore – I don’t know if this is a temporary measure. It’s the first time I’ve ever used the facilities at Victoria. I have not yet revisited Heathrow but that may be coming – I’ll keep you posted.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
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*Songs that are about London and/or remind me of it.
Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)(The Best Years of Our Lives) – Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel
Baker Street (from City to City) – Gerry Rafferty
Still Life in Mobile Homes (from Tin Drum) – Japan
Hey Little Girl (from Primitive Man) – Icehouse
Ribbed and Veined (from Tiny Dynamine) – Cocteau Twins
A New Life (from Actually/Further Listening: 1987-1988) – Pet Shop Boys
Davy (from Meet Danny Wilson) – Danny Wilson
Play Dead (from First; the Sound of Music) – Then Jerico
Chinese Whispers (from Dancing on the Couch) – Go West
Violence of Summer (from Liberty) – Duran Duran
Try All You Want (from Electronic) – Electronic
Doesn’t Mean That Much to Me (from 24 Years of Hunger) – Eg & Alice
Join Our Club (from London Conversations) – Saint Etienne
Kiss Me Stupid (from Lovesighs – an Entertainment) – No-Man
Can’t Get Enough (single) – Soulsearcher
Chase the Sun (single) – Planet Funk
The Future of the Future (single) – Deep Dish with EBTG
Love Story (from Night Works) – Layo & Bushwacka
Window Wide Open (from White Bread, Black Beer) – Scritti Politti
Single Minded (from Credo) – Human League
Summerland (from Interplay) – John Foxx and the Maths
Childhood Crush (from Chinese Driver) – Cock Robin
Safe Tonight (from Lost Girls) – Bat For Lashes
London Overgrown (from London Overgrown) – John Foxx
Ashes to Ashes image from Wiki
BA 1982/83 timetable from Ebay
Brexit ad from the Metro
The Story of the Face from Amazon
125 timetable shot in Budapest 2017
Lost in Translation from unknown source (probably wiki)
No-Man Together We’re Stranger image from discogs
London shots from August and September 2019 except: the Chinese New Year shots which date from 2009, and Cafe Nero shot from 2008. The Holywell Lane shots were taken in autumn 2019, and were intended for another aborted blog. I’ve added them here as a further embellishment to my original text.