Archive for June, 2011

Lawrence Lord

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I had some visitors who, being Dickens fans, expressed a strong desire to see the Trafalgar Tavern and experience the famous Whitebait Dinners. In the event, they asked the timely question of what a whitebait actually is and, grossed-out by my answer (aw, c’mon, they were Americans…) decided on the fish and chips instead, but I digress.

Something happened that I swear has never, ever happened to me before in there – we got a window seat. And because I had never even got near a window seat before, I had never seen this battered, curious little plaque, tucked just inside the balustrade balcony outside:

In case you can’t read it (and I had to squint), it says:

Lawrence Lord

Bon Viveur, Raconteur,
Bar stool philospher
Lifetime Guest of the Year
16 – 5 – 26 – 1 – 5 – 01

Now. It doesn’t take much working out that Lawrence Lord was clearly the Trafalgar Tavern’s best regular ever, but who was he? He only died ten years ago, but I can find no trace of him and, without this (very) discreet plaque I wouldn’t have even heard of him.

I don’t know if the Trafalgar Tavern really gets ‘regulars’ these days, given its popularity with tourists (maybe someone can tell me?) but back in 2001 it was a different place. I certainly remember going to hear music upstairs (there were weekly gigs in the 90s) and it had a much more ‘local’ feel than it does now (that’s not necessarily a dig, btw, places change). From the pub I remember, I could well imagine a loyal clientele that would have been going so long that they (in this case literally) eventually became part of the furniture.

I know nothing about Lawrence Lord and this seems a sad thing. It also seems that there could be someone here who did know him, who could to tell us about a man who was clearly so important to the little area at the end of Park Row that his mates gave him a plaque. Even now, that is a rare thing indeed. I should like to think that, ten years on, we could raise a glass to a genuine Greenwich bon viveur, raconteur and bar stool philosopher…

Parklets Hiding In Plain Sight (1)

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Sorry – the start of yet another occasional series today, guys. For some time now, it’s been dawning on me that Greenwich has even more green places than we tend to think, and I thought we should start celebrating the little parklets that dot themselves around the town so discreetly that we walk past  and don’t even see them.

I’m starting today with one of the bigger ones, though there’s no way it’s big enough to be classified as a park. It’s on the junction of Tunnel Avenue and Blackwall Lane. I was quite surprised that it’s not marked on Streetmap and my A-Z is so tiny that it doesn’t have it either and yet this is not only a largish patch of ground (I bet a developer could put at least fifty teeny-tiny flats on it)  it is clearly looked after.

There are a variety of interesting trees, some of which are proper-sized (something many parks shy away from these days in favour of silly little varieties that aren’t going to require any maintenance) and which provide a lot of shade – and, for the residents of Tunnel Avenue, a welcome screen from the road, the factories and the carwash. Regular readers will know that my superpower is a stupidly (and sometimes embarrassingly) strong sense of smell and in the spring there is something growing in there whose perfume lifts my heart (as opposed to many of East Greenwich’s ‘fragrances’ – and yes, there are STILL weird old odours wafting in from somewhere.)

And there are roses. Lots of, which also require maintenance, which, I assume, is done by Greenwich Council (they have a couple of litter bins in there too, but no benches that I can remember.)

I don’t often praise the council, but this morning I tip my tricorn to their parks department. The grass may be a little shaggy but I’m just fine with that. This little area (I’m not aware it even has a name – maybe it needs one – suggestions please…) could have just been neglected or sold off, but it isn’t. It’s a little oasis hiding in plain sight without which this generally-neglected region of Greenwich would be a mass of concrete, cars and fumes.

The Port of London Murders

Monday, June 27th, 2011

When I hear that an interesting person lived in Greenwich (and let’s face it, most of ‘em come here eventually, and if they spend more than an afternoon round these parts I claim ‘em for our very own…) then I just have to find out more about them. Writers and artists seemed to have found the place fascinating and though these days property prices are beginning to send them down the road to Deptford we still have a few.

Josephine Bell was one of the earlier of the modern authors (contemporary with another, more famous writer with whom she must have been neighbours, I’ll come onto him another day)  and she’s particularly fascinating because, like so many writers even today, she juggled two jobs. I confess that I haven’t read any of her prolific crime series, but I was drawn to the one-off  Port of London Murders because, although it is never named, I’ll put money on Greenwich being the deeply seedy, run-down world of slums and squalor the action turns around. I’ll even wager that this is one of the more personal books for her; it’s certainly one of her earliest.

Doris Bell Collier wasn’t actually from Greenwich. She was born in Manchester, and studied to become a medical doctor at Cambridge and University College Hospital. But somewhere along the way and slightly confusingly, Bell married a chap called Ball and between 1927 and 1935 they practiced medicine in Greenwich. Now, I can’t actually find out where she practiced – whether she was a GP or perhaps a hospital doctor, but as I read the Port of London Murders I found my mind drawn to the Royal Kent Dispensary, which I’ll talk about another day, as it’s worth a post on its own (not least in that the Miller Hospital, which it was part of, was the first place to have circular wards to stop dirty corners) as the story is based around a pre-NHS world where poverty meant that people went for years without medicine, ignored chronic illnesses and relied on charity handouts.

Apparently many of Bell’s crime novels are medically-based, but the reason I think that she was talking from experience here is the humour factor.

This story has been written by someone who has not only seen the misery and suffering of London’s underclass, but has seen the other side of the system too – the fakers, the hypochondriacs, the skivers – and the keepers-up-with-the-Joneses. The two main families, living next door to each other in condemned housing by the river (which if they are not the slums just behind Wood Wharf that Ronald Richards and Derek Bayliss describe in their wonderful Victorian Wood Wharf and Greenwich Riverside I’ll eat my tricorn) compete with each other for ailments – and the doctor’s attention. The doctor in question practices from what I’ll swear is somewhere along Greenwich High Road and is constantly beleaguered with cases both tragically real and comically fake.

I’ve just realised how hard it is to review a crime novel without spoilers, so I’ll stick to what I am convinced is the  Greenwich stuff. According to Richards and Bayliss (whose mention made me go out and find her), Bell, her husband and four children lived locally and clearly knew the Thames Street/Wood Wharf area intimately. She talks about (perhaps from her own doctorial visits) the same cottages that Richards and Bayliss describe in detail; the truly condemned – literally falling apart around their occupants’ ears.

They are grim, despised places, and the residents are under pressure to move out so they can be demolished by the great and good (the book takes place just as the demolition is beginning) but Bell is careful to show the attachment the people feel to them – and the fear of what will happen to them if they go (think the Kidbrooke saga – plus ça change…)

Actually Greenwich itself (okay, okay, the unnamed Thames-side town) is pretty grim. The Thames is at the same time a source of income, a highway, a playground and a deadly foe. People survive however they can. Children play among the daily wreckage  - of ships and cargo and human flotsam.

All this could have made for a rather worthy study of poverty and a shock exposé of working (and middle) class crime, both petty and larger scale, and for, frankly, a grim read. But Josephine Bell has managed to create real people here –  people who don’t let daily desperation rule their lives. They even surprise themselves on occasion with unexpected acts of heroism,  random generosity and the odd moment of honesty.

I don’t think I’ll be revealing too much to say that the murderer is flagged up reasonably early for a crime novel, and that part of the story is watching everything disintegrate. And it’s only mildly depressing that at the end, despite the ‘optimistic’ beginning of demolition to build the Meridian unnamed new estate, the last image we are left with is another tide’s worth of flotsam and jetsum.

If you’re going to read this book (and I recommend you do, it’s pretty cheap in secondhand book stores and it’s an interesting crime story) I suggest you read it alongside Richards and Bayliss’s Victorian  Wood Wharf and Greenwich Riverside, available in the Tourist Office, where you can entertain yourself with photos of what may well be the pub the old geezers all meet in, diagrams of the stoves inside the cottages and anecdotal snippets of the world Josephine Bell describes.

Excellent Doorways (1)

Friday, June 24th, 2011

First in a new occasional series today, folks. Greenwich has some incredible entrances, and it’s easy just to walk past, not even registering you’re passing something special.

Of course now I’m sitting at my desk I can’t remember if there are three or four of these fabulous gabled doors, which clearly date back to way before this was Nevada Street, back when it was Silver Street (and no, despite many hours of discussion no one seems to know why ‘Nevada’ was chosen), but I don’t know much about the houses themselves. All Darryl Spurgeon can tell me about the southern houses is that they are ‘a tall terrace of 1774 with a fine paired doorcase over nos 10 & 11 and canted wooden oriels extending two or more floors at the rear and side.’

Most of the doorways that last down the years are fabulous stone-carved affairs, but it seems all the more precious that these entrances are in an ancient Greek style that might be expected in stone, but are, in fact, painted wood. Of course this wouldn’t have been terribly unusual in Greenwich at the time – a slightly later shop front from Creek Road that currently resides in the Museum of London Stores would seem to be pretty typical of the kind of thing that would have abounded around the 18th and 19th Centuries in Greenwich.

I can’t decide whether they remind me most of a sentry box

or one of those elaborate Swiss weather houses where the lady peeks out of the door on fine days and the gentleman comes out with a brolly in stormy weather…

I’ll welcome any extra information about these fascinating houses…

The Far East

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Okay, so I’ve done the Phantom equivalent of eating my greens and updated the Parish News so now for some fun.

Oona, a newbie, who has been sniffing round my archives (sounds faintly rude), asks:

Your suggestion of using East Greenwich library as a centre for local historical books/documents, is an inspired one  My (related) question is this: do you think the LBG has any intention of doing the right thing by this venerable old building?   Or will they continue to avert their eyes while the exterior decays a little more each year?  It`a sad process to watch it fall apart.

There is little in the way of architecture this end of the borough.  (Although the old fire-station next door to the library could be quite a charmer, again, given some care and attention.)Apart from these two ruins, what is there to lift the spirits on stepping out of my front door in East Greenwich?  If it weren’t for the lovely, and well-maintained, Victorian facade of the Angerstein Hotel next to the flyover, I might as well pass on, blindfolded.  I think of the king`s ransom being spent on the Cutty Sark: a tiny fraction of which could restore East Greenwich library and bring a bit of a sparkle to these neglected parts.

Of course, we’ve been here before, many, many times, but hey, why not have another chat about the Extreme East of Greenwich on a Thursday morning?

In answer to your first question, Oona, no, I don’t think LBG have any good intentions regarding East Greenwich Library. The obvious reason is that this mythical Heart of East Greenwich project (which is now, according to GT, likely to start yielding results in 2013, though it will only be properly finished – i.e. the bits that aren’t housing in 2016) will include a new library, so why bother doing anything to the (listed) old one.

I had a chilling conversation with a smug young chap barely out of short trousers at the ‘consultation’ a couple of years ago where I asked him this very question. I pointed out that East Greenwich Library is listed and he told me that it’s only the facade that’s protected – in his own words ‘we can do what we like with the rest.’ Then he smirked.

So yes, this poor old building is in deep trouble, both short and long term. She’s a lovely little corner of Art Nouveau, created at the same time as so much of  East Greenwich, like the two police stations, two schools, the fire station and most of the housing stock, much of which was bombed to buggery in WWII, but while a bloomin’ fortune was spent on her  sister in posh West Greenwich, smartening her up and enhancing her beauty, even remedial, emergency repairs are done at best grudgingly on EGL.

The old fire station is now accommodation and I can’t see that any cash at all is spent on keeping it looking the curiously lovely place it should be, but you’re right, the Angerstein Hotel is kept very nicely indeed and is a joy to behold.

True, at that very extreme end of East Greenwich there is little to enjoy architecturally. I do like Westcombe Park police station, especially in the spring when the little cherry tree blossoms its heart out, and I also have a soft spot for Tunnel Avenue (probably something to do with the trees that line it) but I really think the last straw after WWII was the rape that occurred when the A102(M) was blasted through the community that bridged Charlton and Greenwich in the 1970s.

So, folks, what architecture is there in the Extreme East for Oona to enjoy? A little further north-west, along Blackwall Lane, I always enjoy Rothbury Hall, also not in the first flush of youth, but with turrets to die for.  What used to be the Ship and Billet and now is shaping up to be ‘The Duchess’ looks curious – I saw them putting up curtains the other day and I do like a good set of curtains in a place.

Manchester Flowers are always a pleasing sight, one of the few examples of a shop that has stayed true to its architectural roots. We’ll draw a veil over the Old Friends.  I love to walk past the old gatehouse to the Pleasaunce (now a private home, which I’d LOVE to know more about, hint hint.)

What, if anything, am I missing here, folks? Architectural reasons to be cheerful in the Far East please.


Ahead of You!

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Folks I’ve just had my day brightened by, of all things, Greenwich Time. It’s not something that has ever happened before, and I don’t hold out hope for it happening again, but hey – today proves that miracles do happen.

No – it’s not the front page news that the ‘Heart of East Greenwich’ has got yet another ‘partner’ in its long-running saga to build something – anything – useful on the old hospital site. I take that in my stride. We’ve been there so many times before and all it’s meant in effect is a shiny new placard on the outside advertising the new body’s name. I shall be overjoyed about that when something actually happens behind the hoardings.

No – this was the piece just inside page two by James Haddrell of Greenwich Theatre announcing this year’s pantomime. I have been edgy all year, will they, won’t they (I’ve already been disappointed by there being no Bubble outside show this year) …but phew – oh, yes, they will.

Some may find me soft in the tricorn to get so disproportionally excited about a kids’ show, but honestly (and perhaps pathetically) this is one of my best nights out all year. I’ve always been a panto fan, but they are not made equally. The Old Vic couldn’t get it right at all – oh, Ian McKellen ‘got it,’ and so would have Maureen Lipman and Sam Kelly if they’d been allowed two minutes onstage, but essentially, it was a bunch of snobs who thought the genre was beneath them and it just didn’t work. Don’t get me started on the list of reasons why, though I do accept that it did have the funniest dame-gag ever in it.

Andrew Pollard gets it – a writer who knows the form inside out, and throws himself into making it the funniest, brightest and best show of the season without ever needing to make snidey nudge-nudge gags to the audience that he’s better than this, really. And he is a superb dame.

Paul Critoph gets it too. He’s usually the jolly-old-soul older-guy character (okay,okay, so last year he was an ugly sis, an interesting departure, but I’m talking ‘usually’), and a jollier old soul you couldn’t possibly want to see on your festive outing. I am more than delighted to see him back.

And Greenwich Theatre gets it. I know I go on about this every year, but even if you’re pantophobic, I urge you to try this on for size. I am already happier today just  reading that this year’s offering is to be Aladdin. I’m looking out my sparkly deelyboppers and whizzy wand already. I even have high hopes I’ll have a real, live, actual child to take with me this year. Booking’s open, but you have to dig around the Greenwich Theatre website for it.

Greenwich Book Place and Gallery

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Remember this? The long-running saga of David Herbert and his shop at 258 Creek Road. I’d give you the links, but it would take up most of the post. Briefly his Victorian ex-pub house/shop was in the way of a new development on Creek Road and instead of caving in, he decided to fight the demolition, despite tree root damage to the rear that made it nigh-on uninhabitable. If you want to read more, you’ll find a good dozen posts about it in the archives.

David Herbert did, perhaps amazingly, win his fight. The place now stands proud and re-pinned, if a little lonesome, along Creek Road and is now re-opened as the kind of meandering, up-and-down, all-over-the-place second hand book store I love. He more or less stayed open throughout the battle but his stock was much depleted. It now appears to be flourishing again, though he still keeps wonderfully eccentric hours. The best thing is to check when you’re wandering past – if the door’s open, so is the shop.

There are several labyrinthine rooms, the rear one of which still smells of the former damp problems – I guess that sort of thing takes a long while to readjust. especially when the place is full of paper. As is traditional with such stores, it’s choc-a-bloc with books in the corridors, on the floors, windowsills, all over the place. He even has a small website though it deals more with pictures than books.

Like all secondhand bookshops, it’s hard to know what you’ll find and prices appear to be as random as anywhere else. I ended up with a turn-of-the-20th-Century travel guide to Northern India, so I am now fully aware of the hazards of hiring native servants and visiting ‘the deserted’ Red Fort on a two-day camel ride.

Most of Greenwich used to be as bohemian as this. I am slowly discovering there are rather more little corners that remain so than might first appear, but they need to be talked about on other occasions.  In other news, I understand Greenwich Book Time, the remainder shop opposite the Picturehouse, is now reopened and, according to Ebspig, ‘looking smart and smelling of paint.’ I’m delighted, but hope that David Herbert resists the temptation to spruce up. I wish him the best of luck – he has fought a hard and lonely battle for his little Creek Road Castle. We need people like him.

London’s Lost Rivers

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Long-term Phantophiles may remember the slightly-depressing-but-hugely-important Derelict London, a labour of love by photographer Paul Talling. Arising out of a superb website it was Talling’s love letter to the deserted, unloved parts of London.

The website for Talling’s latest project is the opposite –  a site arising from a book. Although it has a sample chapter and suggestions for walks, it is very much a promotion for the book, rather than an entity with its own life.

That’s not to say this isn’t a very enjoyable book. I know relatively little about the rivers that used to flow freely into the Thames from all around London and now are forced to find their way through underground conduits, sewers and canals. I know more now than I did even a couple of years ago, as there has been quite a preponderance of volumes on the subject – from serious, heavyweight stuff by guys like Iain Sinclair through to a new wave of London-centric novelists such as Greenwich’s Own Christopher Fowler (the superb Water Room is easily the best of his Bryant & May series) and, more recently, Ben Aaronovitch, the plod’s  answer to J K Rowling, but I am no potamologist .

Where this particular book succeeds is when it works in tandem with other volumes. Paul Talling has set himself the task of finding out exactly where these rivers run, and, perhaps more interestingly, where they finally break free. The photographs, whether of graveyards boiling with mouldering headstones, completely dry streets whose geography reveals  the bed of a former tributary or what looks like a slightly dull water feature in the basement of Grays Antiques but turns out to be the Tyburn, are fabulous, and work extremely well with the largely-print works that others have come up with.

That I don’t feel the same passion coming from the pages I did with ‘Derelict London’ is, perhaps, explained in his intro where he says that after his first book he ‘began looking around for a new obsession.’ In my experience you don’t look for obsessions, they find you. But that doesn’t negate what the book does, which is record an ephemeral and (occasionally bleakly) beautiful vision of London, with great photos and pithy extras.

Of course Greenwich town doesn’t actually have its own river – the Ravensbourne just clips our Western edge (and isn’t particularly ‘lost’, anyway.) Perhaps this is because we have dozens of little springs that, pre-medieval times and the network of conduits, found their own way down to the Thames without a particular need to join up. But Talling, arguably ‘cheating,’  (they’re not rivers) but also, just as arguably, ‘justified’ (they are wet – and largely ‘lost’)  includes the old Docklands both North and South of the river, with Woolwich Dockyard just about squeaking in at the very last entry.

In my experience people who are interested in Greenwich don’t restrict themselves to the town’s history (the only reason I mainly do so here is because I need to stay on-topic; in real life I am just as interested in London in general…) And as a collector of all things London, I love this book. Being pocket-sized and paperback, it’s small enough to arm myself with on a jaunt to discover these places, yet also works as a reference work and, much like Talling’s earlier masterpiece, is a valuable record of things that will not last forever.


When I’m Cleanin’ Windows

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Capability Bowes has a problem. His windows are so grubby he can’t see the wonders of Eltham where he lives. He asked me to recommend a cleaner, but this is out of my area. Can anyone help?

Random Things Noted

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

A post of bits today, folks.  Stuff’s going on just now, and while none of it really seems worth a post on its own, it’s all mildly interesting. I warn you now I am in a ridiculously optimistic mood.

The Greenwich Book Time remaindered bookshop, for example. It  really has closed now, after months of threatening to do so. But there are guys busy-beevering away in there, so my money’s on them re-opening after a refit – I hope so, otherwise what are legions of us to do before we go to the Picturehouse of an evening? I also notice that there are people hard at work in the old Sonia’s deli-cafe down Traf Road, dunno what that will be. And I still haven’t made it into L’Artisan French deli a few doors down, shame on me, since I’ve had good reports. I’ve just also had the Real Work piling up.

Next I notice that the Squeeze plaque on the side of the Borough Hall has disappeared again. What’s gone on there? Does anyone know? I thought they’d dealt with the listing/permission issue. But my obscenely cheerful mood is telling me that I’m sure it’s just gone for polishing or something.

There’s something on the air at the moment, and for once, given that this is Greenwich, traditionally associated with horrid odours, it’s heavenly. I always assumed that roses or something similarly gardenish created the best perfume in the world, but I have come to regard the blossom of the lime trees lining pretty much every street in Greenwich as being my own personal favourite – sweet but not cloying, heady but not overpowering. And this year, it’s intoxicating. You can smell it all over the place just now, it’s hanging on the air, but among the best places I’ve found for just standing underneath and breathing in are:

  • The tree at the St Mary’s Gate entrance of Greenwich Park (pictured)
  • Outside the flats on the Trafalgar Estate (must make the apartments very dark, but they’ll smell fabulous)
  • Along the gates to Devonport House, near the Grisly Altar of Doom (avert your eyes – however shocking that such heavenly perfume should be,  pervading such utter evil…)
  • And, of course, along by the Maritime Museum and elsewhere in the park. Stand beneath these trees and love Greenwich. You’ll have the added benefit today of staying dry.

I am very excited about Rob’s news that The O2 could get its own skywalk. I’ll be first up there. And although Darryl is right to worry that the Thames Path will be closed yet again for the cable car, despite the funding not being there yet, I am in a merry mood today and I am therefore assuming they know something we don’t and that August 1st will see not only the path closed but work beginning on the super-fast erection of a cable car that will, apparently whip us to Albert Dock in an instant (they’re even saying that they’ll let bikes on, Darryl, though someone I know ‘in the transport world’ sniffed cynically when I mentioned this to him. But Boris has said bikes, and I always believe everything he says, so pah to nay-sayers.) We should be able to do three high East London things in a day – the skywalk, followed by the cable car, followed by the mad Hubble Bubble tower in the Olympics. Yo!

And – heavens to Murgatroyd! Look at this. From the surroundings, I think Tony took this at Westcombe Park – but could it be that Southeastern have actually done something about the suggestion I made a couple of months ago about notifying passengers about train lengths?

One last observation. Doesn’t the Mitre look good at the moment? I began to worry when the squirly topiary went brown, but they’ve done themselves proud with the flowers:

Apologies for the cheerfulness. My medication is late this morning.