The London Nobody Knows
Slightly off-topic here, guys, but only slightly. The London Nobody Knows, as some of you will be aware, was a series of books and articles by Geoffrey Fletcher in the mid 1960s.
Fletcher was the Sinclair of his day. Writing not about Sixties Swinging London, but its dodgy, edgy underbelly. The seedy, seamy side. The poor side. Most of it talks about north of the river, although he does mention Greenwich as “not yet sufficiently explored architecturally,” though he reserves praise for the junk shop in Spread Eagle Yard (now part of the restaurant) and Goddards (now the burger bar.)
Fletcher’s prose is elegant and flowing, punctuated with line drawings almost as evocative as the writing. He’s most at home in decaying music halls, decaying markets or with decaying, tragic people. The homeless, the chronic poor, the meths drinkers.
The books have been out of print for years, though they’re not particularly hard to find second hand. But just released on DVD is the frankly surreal documentary written by Geoffrey Fletcher and narrated by James Mason in 1967.
Mason, in flat cap and tweeds, carrying a furled umbrella, wanders around 60s London, looking at the bits that Austin Powers missed. He visits bombsites, abandoned music halls, decaying Spitalfields houses, slums and miserable factories. It’s in colour, but that colour is so washed out that the feeling of melancholy is almost palpable. Mason walks around markets, taking in the local characters, the goods for sale, the patter. He visits waterside factories (including a bizarre ‘humorous sequence’ about an egg-breaking factory, making fun of it, but never actually explaining what the hell it was (anyone who knows, do tell.)
By far the most distressing part is when he meets the people Fletcher’s writing about. The people who still live in the slums. The has-been street performers. The down-and-outs at the Salvation Army shelter. The squabbling alcoholics, fighting over a bottle of meths (The PG rating is qualified by a warning “contains scene of a man drinking methylated spirits.”)
This is a highly affecting film. I was really quite down by the time I finished watching its 45 minutes. Interestingly, despite his fascination with London’s history and architectiure, Fletcher is in favour of those hideous tower blocks that by the 60s were springing up all over the place instead of ancient Georgian mansions, and warns us not to get too sentimental about the wrecking ball we see in full flow in the film (no warning about that in the PG rating…) but somehow, watching those kids playing in the streets of a war-devastated London, the 60s attitude, however depressing, is at least understandable.
Greenwich is mentioned only as a place where pirates used to be hanged – and even that not in name, but I think this is such an important slice of recent London history that I make no apology for including it here.
Bundled with it is the even more surreal Bicyclettes de Belsize – a sort of cross between Blow Up and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. The thankfully-short ‘cult film’ is, as far as I can tell, about the hazards of bad cycling. Hip Anthony May cycles irresponsibly around the streets of Hamsptead, having two crashes in about ten minutes – once with a small girl on a trike who gets a crush on him. The second time, he goes headlong into a poster of a fashion model and gets a crush on her.
After a chase, a spurious fashion-shoot in Belsize Park (no David Hemmings – but there might as well have been) and a groovy party scene, it all ends happily ever after. I should also point out that there are only about two words spoken in the entire film. Everything else is sung. There are some extremely cheesy musical numbers, none of which are classics but annoyingly hang around the mind for hours afterwards, and some very dodgy miming on the part of the stars. Shut your eyes for the embarrassing comedy queue. Quite cringe-making.
What makes the film watchable is the location and the camera work. Hampstead seems to have largely missed out on the wholesale destruction the rest of London suffered and there’s a lot of recognisable stuff. But for me, the aerial shots and the lingering long shots are the best bit. Even if you can’t stomach the rest, do watch the opening credits – one long tracking shot which turns out to be the view from Anthony May’s roof.
I’m not sure I’d agree with the jewel-box, which describes Bicyclettes de Belsize as “an absolute gem,” but if you like tooth-edgingly sweet slices of lost 60s kitsch, this is your movie.
I’ve just found a groovy widget that allows me to recommend stuff if it’s on Amazon. It will come in useful for a new section I’m in the middle of creating on Greenwich books and resources (though of course most Greenwich books and resources are out of print and therefore not Amazonable.) So I’m testing it out here: