The Cathedral of the Movies

If you find yourself on Mitcham Road in Tooting, nip into the Gala Bingo hall where you’re in for a surprise. This is the former Tooting Granada, a movie palace of the 1930s, and its amazing interior has been kept intact, give or take an X-Factor slot machine or two. If you ask the lady behind the desk nicely, she’ll let you look around and give you a printed sheet by Richard Gray on the history of the Granada.
I’ve never seen anything quite like the auditorium of the Granada. Gray calls it “Shakespearian Gothic” and says it was created by stage designer Theodore Komisarjevsky (1882-1954), an emigre from revolutionary Russia, who was given the freedom to go crazy with his vision of a sort of medieval cathedral of film. Apparently even the great Wurlitzer organ has been restored to rise again, although sadly it was damaged by flooding in 2008 and continues to be repaired.
And don’t knock the bingo games that are going on in the middle of these strange surroundings – since 1973, when the rise of TV caused the closure of the picture palace, bingo kept this place alive. Now, by the look of it, online casinos are killing off live bingo, with just a scattering of solitary older players the day we were there. The Streatham Hill bingo hall, once the Streatham Hill Playhouse, is still limping along but has so few visitors that it had to close off its upstairs section. Buildings such as the Granada may be listed, but if they’re no use to anyone they’ll have to be shut up, and then who will get to appreciate them? Can’t we think of something new to do with them, when the last old lady puts down her pen and sadly goes home to spend her time looking at instead?

London Walk No.43: Zebra Finches to William Blake

Today I went to see the sweetest exhibition on in London, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot‘s guitar-playing zebra finches at the Barbican – closing soon, go! Unless you’re nervous of tiny birds, since they seem to have got used to humans and were actually landing in one man’s hood.
A wander out into the City led me to Dissenters’ burial ground Bunhill Fields, which for some reason I’ve never come across before. Cutting through, I noticed I was walking past a couple of famous graves:
Daniel Defoe has an impressive obelisk, while this one is more modest:
But it seems to have a selection of coins lined up carefully on top of it. I’ve never seen this before: anyone know why it is? Is Blake’s grave a sort of wishing well equivalent for fans of visionary poetry?

Rural Brixton

The Lambeth Landmark site is full of images from an amazingly pastoral Brixton, like this farm on Coldharbour Lane, above.
The cornfields are sadly vanished from Brixton Hill, although the windmill is still there.
Some of them, like these cattle on the corner of Clapham Park Road, or the sheep grazing in Brockwell Park, really don’t seem that long ago.
Brixton also has a long tradition of theatrical/strange modes of transport: until recently a bright pink tank often used to drive up and down Brixton Road (what happened to that?) and a very striking man with long dreadlocks occasionally rides a white carthorse bareback past my house. But that was nothing compared with music-hall artist Mr Gustav-Grais’s zebra chaise, stabled in Brixton in 1912.

Happy Birthday Ronald Searle!

Ronald Searle is 90 this week and to celebrate, the Chris Beetles gallery in St James’s in London is showing an exhibition of his work, from rum adverts to Molesworth. Go if you can: you can only really see the beautiful intricacy of his illustrations when they’re full size.
If you want to see more, there’s another exhibition at the Cartoon Museum until July.

London Walk No.5: Priest Supply Shop to Tallulah Bankhead

The best thing about London is that, even if you’ve lived there nearly your whole life, if you start off walking down obscure backstreets you are guaranteed to come across strange and interesting stuff you have never seen before. Wandering down tiny streets in Westminster, for instance, I went past this shop supplying chasubles and albs to the clergy, with window displays I found fascinating.
What is an alb, anyway? They’re quite expensive. And being a godless heathen I had no idea communion wine was non-alcoholic. What a swizz.
Then I turned a corner and came on a well-stocked Oxfam bookshop, where I found what I can tell already is going to be an excellent read:
First page: “I have milked a mammoth [what?]… and christened an electric rabbit with a jeroboam of Lanson 1912… I won five pounds from Lord Birkenhead when he bet that Cleopatra was a brunette.”

Crystal Caves and Ghost Towns

Elephant and Castle is the place to go at the moment for Londoners who like to encounter some mystery in their wanderings. First of all, Roger Hiorns’ Seizure is there for a few more weeks – an empty flat that Hiorns has filled with copper sulphate solution to create a magically strange blue crystal growth in the middle of a condemned council block.
There’s also the gigantic (nearly) abandoned Heygate estate, awaiting demolition as part of a long-promised regeneration of the area. Just a few residents are left in this spooky, boarded up maze. We only came across one jumpy couple going into their flat while wandering around the corridors. They seemed bewildered about what is going to happen next (understandable that they’re jumpy – according to one man we met at Seizure, services are being cut off and the place is not being policed at night in an effort to encourage the stragglers to move out).
Walking around reminds you how badly thought out these Seventies estates were from the inhabitants’ point of view. You come out onto the lower level where people park their cars and are then trapped in a concrete arena with walkways above but no steps up to them. Endlessly frustrating detours around obstacles just to find a way out for the pedestrian – like the whole of the Elephant, really. Did those architects ever use their legs?
Hope they finally move people somewhere that really does live up to those cities-in-the-sky ideas.

Sounds of the Thames


The part of Wapping where I occasionally have to go to work is typical of London in its squashing together of incongruous things. Wailing bankers mill around the bottom of the Lloyds building, Tower Bridge swarms with confused tourists – then on the other side of the river, beyond all the restaurants, there’s a completely different atmosphere.


It reminds you that being on a massive tidal waterway near an estuary, this bit of London is basically by the sea. It even smells of seaweed.


Tourist boats and speedboats go by, creating waves that clang the garden barges together, and geese fly overhead:


Small Londoners appreciate the wildlife:


Adult visitors have more important things on their minds – where to eat:


Of course, there’s no escaping the essential city sounds – ye traditional London surveillance helicopter, plus drills, sirens, planes and other people’s mobile phone conversations:



Governor of Duck Island

This 1734 map of St James’s Park in London shows a strange, small territory – that of Duck Island. Charles II created the post of “Governor of Duck Island” as a sinecure for one of his favourites, and it was revived by Queen Caroline the year before this map was made, and given to the poet Stephen Duck, presumably because of his name. If you’re a queen, you can do that kind of thing. (Then again, he’d earlier been her hired hermit in the crazy Merlin’s Cave in Richmond, so maybe he had a talent for that sort of work.) Duck Island itself was described as on the one side a wilderness and a desert, and on the other “like a paradise in miniature”. It later had a strange little Swiss cottage built on it.
Map from the British Library Crace Collection, which has quite a few nice maps of London parks:

Unexpected London Sight No. 4: Lemur Luxury

Last weekend I paid a visit to Eltham Palace, an Art Deco mansion built by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in 1936, on to the remains of a medieval royal palace. Stephen Courtauld was a member of the wealthy textile clan, but sensibly dodged going into the family business for a more agreeable existence of philanthropy, yachting and jetting around in little shiny planes. The interiors are pretty spectacular – Virginia Courtauld had the most enviable bedroom and bathroom I’ve seen:
The Courtaulds were so fashionable that even their pet lemur, Mah-Jongg, slept in style, in centrally heated quarters decorated with a mural of bamboo forest scenes. Mah-Jongg was bought in Harrods, apparently, and was very keen on nipping guests on the ankles.
Sadly they don’t let you take pictures inside the house so I can’t show any more, but it’s definitely worth a visit – even though you have to wear blue plastic bags over your shoes and dodge crowds of people listening to audio guides narrated by Hercule Poirot, which is not quite so glamorous.

Mapping London

This 1862 map of London is detailed enough to give a fascinating insight into what’s changed and what’s stayed the same, particularly in the outer edges of the capital: looks like I live in what was then a hedgerow. Interesting that while most of the road names in this part of Brixton have gone – Pleasant Retreat, for example, is now not a completely accurate description – the pub names have remained, though many of their crappy DJ-bar interiors would be a shock to a Victorian gent in search of a pint. (Although there are a couple of pubs at the top of the hill where he’d feel right at home.)
The same site points me in the direction of this collection of London maps, where I learn that north Hackney in 1885 looks a Romantic sort of place, with a hermitage and a Gothic Hall beside the marshes, along with lunatic asylums and other large, forbidding buildings such as Craven Lodge.
The British Library has a whole online exhibition devoted to the subject, although sadly I can’t check it out properly because they’re so up to date what with their Google Map mashups that it causes my browser to quit. Anyone with a computer that’s not suffering from overfeeding and heatstroke may have more luck.