Severing The Links With London’s Past

London

black cap pub

London grows, and in doing so it sheds the past. The fabric of much that made the city special to Londoners is unravelling. Here’s another small example.

The city’s drag & cabaret pubs can trace their origins back to the old music halls. They hide in plain sight in high streets around the city – or at least until very recently they did. In Camden Town there were several of particular fame; The Black Cap and the Mother Red Cap (named after local witches) were conflated into one pub for the film ‘Withnail & I’. The Mother Red Cap was sold off without notice and gutted. Another, the Lemon Tree, simply vanished overnight. This week the area’s flagship, the grand old Black Cap – a veritable repository of music hall history, with unique tiling depicting the Camden Witches in its hallway – was suddenly closed by aggressive developers looking to flog it off as flats. Now there have been protests from the local community, who are appalled at the sudden closure.

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Madame Jojo’s in Soho was closed under false pretences and The Joiner’s Arms in Hackney has shut, but I suspect this is not a conspiracy, just a sign of the times. It leaves just one more venue to go, in South London. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern (1863) looks like a Victorian coliseum. I first went there with my dad, when it had two separate bars with a stage and a trapeze. Dancers, drag acts and low comics would race along the bar, so you had to whip your drink up pretty sharpish not to have it kicked through the window.

It was never a genteel pub, but there were famous faces in the audience – Princess Diana once slipped out of the palace disguised as a man to see a show. I finally appeared there as part of the Hot August Fringe Festival. They had many strange and wonderful acts  – I remember the night they gave a joint to every customer to test Lambeth’s relaxed one-joint-no-arrest attitude to marijuana – and it was a privilege to finally be taking the stage myself. Bear in mind that you’re within spitting distance of the Houses of Parliament, and the thought of drag queens on ceiling swings singing Gilbert & Sullivan arias takes on a strange new resonance.

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If you grew up in central London there was a good chance you’d end up in one of these polysexual innuendo-filled places with your mates or even your parents. In his biography, Ray Winstone points out that he used to go to the only remaining venue in the East End, Benjy’s.

Now the Royal Vauxhall Tavern is shutting. Like predators circling wounded prey, developers play a waiting game, hoping their target will tire first. London’s connections with its past grow more tenuous every day, but the paradox is that this past is the very thing that attracts admiration. On the surface the city’s most obvious features remain, but the things that truly bound each street to its inhabitants are vanishing with incredible speed.

A few Victorian working-class pubs – who cares that they’re going? Another fund of stories turns into legend and is soon lost. Each neighbourhood has names associated with its history – Angerstein, Vanbrugh, Thornhill, Bedford – and many places carried these names into the present. So the names are removed and the buildings vanish, Soho turns into an upmarket housing estate, high streets homogenise – and with them a little more colour drains from the city I loved.

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8 comments on “Severing The Links With London’s Past”

  1. Vivienne says:

    Oh no, oh no! I feel quite depressed.

  2. snowy says:

    It is happening all over, developers demolish the building and write down the fine they are given, usually a few thousand pounds as an additional expence. It’s only a tiny percentage of the whole project cost.

    And now for the boringly practical bit.

    The way to stop them is to get the building listed, anybody can apply to have a building [or part of a building eg. a bar or etched window glass] listed.

    The criteria for listing are:

    [snip]

    Not all these principles will be relevant to every case, but a particular building may qualify for listing under more than one of them.

    Architectural interest

    A building may be considered important for its:

    architectural design
    decoration
    craftsmanship

    Special interest may also apply to:

    nationally important examples of particular building types and techniques, for example buildings displaying technological innovation or virtuosity
    significant plan forms

    Historic interest

    A building must:

    illustrate important aspects of England’s social, economic, cultural or military history
    have close historical associations with nationally important people
    normally have some quality of interest in its physical fabric

    When making a listing decision, the Secretary of State may take into account the extent to which the exterior contributes to the architectural or historic interest of any group of buildings of which it forms part. This is generally known as “group value”.

    [snip]

    A building being the last of a particular type/function in it’s area should be enough, on it’s own, but it is generally not. Hence the need for some serious case building.

    The key is to assemble a group of people with expertise to put together the proposal. [It’s all about the paperwork and the names attached.]

    So ideally a group would need one or two architects, professors of history, be that social, political, economic, military, theatre, industrial. Researchers, local historians etc to back them up. Pull out every possible historical link to the building, who designed it, who built it, who went there, was it used for meetings of X party, who lived’stayed there, was it the scene of X and so on.

    And somebody skilled at writing reports in the Civil Service style.

    The last being the most important, finding a ‘gamekeeper’ that has turned ‘poacher’ will go a long way toward getting a building listed.

    [But in a city with a transient population too busy to care about old buildings, even that may be asking too much. In which case go out and say goodbye to these building soon, because next week they may have vanished forever.]

  3. Vivienne says:

    There is clearly a need for a sort of National Trust for London, a London Trust. It is hard to see where funding and expertise might come from, but many people are horrified about the destruction/poor planning that goes on, but it’s just ad hoc. Planning seems so outdated and obscure: just a bit of paper stuck on a lamppost type of thing – or the Hitchhiker’s Guide scenario. Near me local people have been trying to stop extra floors being put on blocks of flats, as theirs would overshadow gardens, worsen parking, change the look of the flats and so on, but this has succeeded so far because of one couple’s determination and monitoring.

  4. Joel Meadows says:

    A great piece as usual, Chris. I find the rampant development very depressing too. I have always lived in London and used to visit my dad’s strip club in Soho and going around the city, it is losing what has made it unique…

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I have discovered another bar to reasonable development: the profit motive. We have a distinct lack of affordable housing in our city, people must be starving themselves and going about in rags in order to afford the current rents and that is only *if* you can find a rental. Everything is high priced condos, towers full of them.We are urged to do whatever we can to help the homeless but I know of two projects that were ruined, one by the city council and the other by firm advice from the authorising body. A church in a comfortable neighbourhood wanted to turn its property in seniors’ housing but Vancouver planning refused permission and they ended up building more condos. A Burnaby church wanted to redevelop their site to build rental suites over a new church, but the church body that oversees these things said it would be too costly and complicated so they are going to end up with a condo tower next to their new sanctuary. I don’t want anyone to talk to me about acting, not talking, when two legitimate attempts are struck down by the very people who should be encouraging it.
    I realise you’re talking about public gathering places but it’s all part of the same thing. These developers have to have an on-going supply of projects or they go broke. Hey, if we could stall a few of these projects perhaps some of these firms would go under and we could relax a little more.

  6. There’s no point in just being depressed – all of us who love London – and I have known it intimately since the 1950s and have lived or worked in virtually every inner London borough, have to FIGHT these bastards who have no interest in it other than making massive profits from raping it. We must write or phone or contact every single media contact we have, every celebrity prepared to write or stand up and be counted, or otherwise do all we can to protect this fabulous old city from sliding into anonymity and bland uniformity of restaurants, cafes and loft apartments. I worked in the 1960s at the Little Angel Marionette Theatre as its first administrator and in those days Upper Street had one greasy-spoon café and two pubs (one of them the King’s Head) and was all the better for it! Now you can’t move along Upper Street for bloody boring restaurants charging £100 for two lumps of something on a giant plate with a lettuce leaf garnish. Likewise I was Sam Wanamaker’s Deputy in the 70s trying to get the Globe built and it was him, and me to a lesser extent, that saved Bankside from rapacious developers wanting it ALL to be offices with penthouse flats on their top floors. Without his efforts there would be no theatre but also NO Borough Market, NO Tate Modern (a working power station when I was there) and NO Millenium Bridge (which was SAM’S IDEA!). Let’s start a SAVE LONDON campaign. FIGHT FIGHT AND FIGHT AGAIN! Maggie Southam Ferrari.

  7. The concept of a London Trust organisation is an excellent one. There are no Pevsner or Geoffrey Fletcher’s around any more to keep a watch on what’s going on negatively in the capital so it needs a group of on the ball Watchers (such as Chris) to make sure crap development doesn’t roll continue to roll over wonderful old landmarks like the Mother Black Cap and many others purely to make money. These property billionaires mainly come to London from Eastern Europe to make money so let’s stop them and force them to fuck off somewhere else to destroy a unique and much-loved environment! Who’s up for forming the LONDON TRUST then?

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Let’s hear it for Maggie! I don’t know how much weight foreigners should have but she makes me want to prevent my own city from disappearing. We do have to stand up and make ourselves heard.

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