Weird & Wonderful London 4
Ploughing through far too many books on London and trying to work out which ones to take with me to Barcelona, where I’ll be working in seclusion next week, I can’t help but stare at photographs that touch me in some way. A lot of people complain that we have an idealised view of London past. I’m not so sure I do, as I remember the racism, sexism and homophobia, the stiflingly dull Sundays, the dirt, the early closing, all too clearly – but although the above photo was taken in the 1930s, I do recall coppers on the street in the 1960s often acting as baby-fetchers (when the little ones wandered off), child-minders, marriage councillors and emergency goalkeepers.
Until 1934 there were no driving tests and no speed limits, so an awful lot of people got mown down. The start of the blackouts saw a massive rise in the pedestrian death rate, and night-strollers took to wearing luminous items of clothing including hats and brooches. Here a pet cemetery sprang up to point out just how many animals were needlessly dying from careless driving.
I saw, what’s on television? You’d need a magnifying glass to see the programme, and that’s exactly what they did, fixing magnifying screens over the image. My neighbours had one that made you feel like you had early-onset cataracts. Here John Logie Baird, who had invented television in the 1920s, is watching TV on a gigantic 7 inch screen. In 1947 there were less than 14,000 TV owners.
Underneath the British Museum there’s a party going on – actually, the the old British Museum tube station, which became a children’s play centre during the war, as well as an air raid shelter. By this time the station had closed; it only opened for 33 years, from 1900, made redundant by Holborn Station. The dude on far left is a reader, not a joiner-inner. Yay!
Underneath the fashions for 1948. Clearly a huge influence on Madonna, this scary-looking model is wearing some kind of ironclad foundation garment with conical breastplates, butch shoulder-pads and hip enhancements to emphasise a tiny waist. It presumably took a couple of strong lads armed with screwdrivers and a blow lamp to get her out of it.
What on earth are these people doing? Is it a new spectator sport for all the family? Sort of. Incredibly, they’re watching a bomb disposal squad at work. In the summer of 1949 they removed a massive bomb that had fallen through the roof of a London cinema and failed to explode, so here’s everyone crowding around to see if it can be got out without blasting them all to bits. Sometimes unexploded bombs were taken to the nearest field and exploded, where they would routinely make craters 20 yards across.
The past looks ever-more like a lost world, dangerous, weird and unsettling, but always human.