A Week In Esoteric London
Behind the hollowing-out of London, the glass-and-steel boxes of the Square Mile and the architectural uproar of the new railway line Crossrail which has resulted in entire city blocks vanishing overnight, quirky London clings on by its fingertips, surviving in the halls and pubs that haven’t been turned into luxury loft living. This week I visited three such places.
First up was the Model Railway Club of King’s Cross, refreshingly a workshop/ track-building club in the city centre which owns its own building and doesn’t have to worry about finding new homes (a rare thing now). It’s the oldest club in the world, and filled with ex-railway men (there was one woman present when I visited) as well as young people, working on projects that take decades to finish. A charming gentleman in a railway club tie tried to explain about 00 gauges but realised his guest was struggling with the concept. The club seeks no publicity but welcomes all.
On to a night with the Sohemians, meeting upstairs at the mock-Tudor Wheatsheaf pub in Rathbone Place, a rare gem of a building that has survived when its delightful neighbour, The Newman Arms (which featured in the film ‘Peeping Tom’) has been closed down. The Sohemians are interested in all things London and esoteric. I’ve played there, and last night film historian Charles Barr took us through the history of Ealing Studios, scoring some fascinating political points along the way.
Barr explained that Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson had both professed their love of these films, failing to realise that what they mistook for Little England patriotism is quite the reverse, with the Michael Balcon films in particular emphasising community over commerce. The Sohemians’ next event is a new film, Adrift in Soho’, based on the book by ‘Outsider’ Colin Wilson.
Next I visited Viktor Wynd’s Last Tuesday Society, where the collector houses his Museum of Curiosities, in Mare Street, Hackney. It’s a part of London tourists don’t often get to because although close to the centre it’s cut off from transport. Here’s my favourite market, Broadway Market, a park and another reach of the Regent Canal. The old Hackney residents now find themselves in the grip of gentrification, yet it’s an area where small businesses appear to thrive.
The Museum is clearly a labour of love for Wynd, but a bit of a Marmite experience. Housed in an ordinary Victorian terrace, the ground floor is effectively a cocktail bar/ tea shop with exhibits (items from Cornwall’s Museum of Witchcraft were on loan when I went, but it was too dark inside to see them clearly).
Down a winding staircase the main exhibits await; taxidermy, ephemera, skeletons, eggs of extinct birds, paintings, toys, antique dentistry, masks, historical pornography and ludicrous paperbacks fill the displays. Oh, and Pablo Escobar’s gold-leafed hippopotamus head. Wynd has a love of Gesamtkunstwerk, juxtaposing many strange objects to create a total work of art. But he also admits that he has never wanted to have an original idea in his life, so he collects instead.
The problem with this initially glorious chaos is immediately apparent; without a theme there’s no sense of curatorship, and it’s all simply a mess (something Wynd admits to loving). A stuffed bear in a fez – didn’t Les Trois Garcons do that a decade ago? Isn’t it a little outmoded now?
Dominating one corner is the sequinned suit of the dandy Sebastian Horsley, always spotted in his stovepipe hat drifting about Soho (until he overdosed). He was someone I knew and found intensely irritating, but it’s a problem I have with all self-obsessed dilettantes. This is a cabinet of curiosities, but its real subject is the collector himself.
Still, the best thing is that the Museum organises all sorts of workshops, events and lectures, and is a welcome addition in an area that encourages the idiosyncratic. Cleverly, it also makes money.
But it’s not just the small places that host esoteric works; at the end of the week I visited the vast and still hopelessly confusing Barbican to watch a three-hour Manga turned into a theatrical experience. ‘Pluto‘ was a spectacular history of post-war Japan seen through the eyes of the hero Astro-Boy, via a breathlessly complex story about killer robots, AI, family and international politics. It revealed Japanese obsessions with memory and mourning, honour and loss. This astonishing physical production was under-attended on a rainy London Saturday.
Now, let’s add up the total cost of all this esoteric entertainment; nothing, a fiver, another fiver, £25. Not an expensive week, but so much to think about.