Lost In My Lifetime
I spent far too much time in the building above, a sumptuous art deco palace which was the Odeon Woolwich. It used to face another similarly grand cinema with a square in the centre, and could have become the Leicester Square of South London. It was certainly the only reason for visiting Woolwich, and developers tore it down, replacing it with the kind of disfiguring retail blankness that blights cities and creates anti-social behaviour. It made me realise just how many places I hung out in in London that have since been destroyed.
This was the Astoria, a legendary theatre, music venue and nightclub on Charing Cross Road that was demolished to make way for the Crossrail project – it’s a wasteland at the moment. While the Astoria building itself was not that attractive, it had great bands and holds a special place in many Londoners’ hearts.
There was once a huge funfair in London at Battersea (the remnants of which can still be spotted), which was really rather a poor excuse for fun when compared to modern equivalents, but had a quaint atmosphere and charming pleasure gardens with dancing fountains. It was also famed for the nightmarish Rotor, which made us throw up, and appeared in films like Peter Walker’s ‘Frightmare’. My brother and I were taken there as a treat, and to the circus, which was based nearby.
Gamages, of course, was the last family-owned department store in Holborn that was disgracefully replaced by a glass box. We’d go every Christmas to see Santa. There seem to be no colour pictures of it in later years in existence. It would be unthinkable now that a building like this could be torn down and replaced with nothing of interest.
The Mappin & Webb building, where my mother bought her wedding ring, was notoriously demolished to make way for this embarrassment, a building from which half a dozen bankers have thrown themselves to their deaths, probably after sampling the food in the rooftop restaurant.
It seems impossible to imagine now just how hands-on the zoos once were. The chimps’ tea party at the London Zoo was a highlight for us, along with elephant rides and parades. This toy from an earlier era celebrated such entirely acceptable shows and suggests they were a part of zoo events for decades. While it’s wrong to anthropomorphise animals, they did always seem to me to be having fun.
It’s pointlessly nostalgic and impractical to mourn the buildings that have gone, but all too often the ones that have replaced specifically London designs are invariably outsized, and of the mass-produced standard shape you find anywhere from Canada to Japan. They chip away at London’s identity and remove the very thing people come to see. I imagine that within another lifetime there will be little left to identify London beyond a handful of protected monuments poking up between the glass panels of Anytown, Anywhere.
Lost London is, in fact, a tradition in itself now – there are so many books and maps on the subject that it has become an industry.