art, buildings, family, London, lovelife, words

The End of Progress

in every dream home…

Highpoint, white modernist buildings, brutalism, the Czech Resistance and the killing of a Nazi. Hyde Park communists, the Balcombe Street gang, and the Crooked Stick on a date. 

IT WAS Open House weekend in London, so I took a tour. On a bright, clear, sunny afternoon I travelled over the river and up to Highgate Hill, one of north London’s loftiest spots, at the top of which sits Highpoint, the archetypal 30s modernist apartment block by Berthold Lubetkin.

The emigre Georgian architect is best known for his playful Penguin Pool at London Zoo, with its curling concrete slides. Highpoint, however, is Lubetkin’s picture perfect modernist concrete block – with white render, large sliding windows and gondola balconies. The block features numerous innovations for its time – plate glass entrances, sweeping minimalist lobbies, slender piers, and the apartment radiators tidied away in suspended ceilings. 

My Open House plan was to get into some desirable buildings and admire the shapely interiors. I hadn’t considered what the view from the top of Highpoint might offer, until I stepped into the double height living space of the top floor duplex, with its almost floor-to-ceiling windows, and found vast expanses of London laid out below. 

I headed directly for the balcony, past the feature curvy staircase and immaculate period fixtures, my attention pulled to the outside, to soak up the view. 

The sky was blue like a Hockney swimming pool and stretched away beyond the Legoland roofs, to the far off rising hills and greentops of Essex. The occult pyramid top of Canada Tower was blinking in the centre ground, but Renzo Piano’s cloud-spearing, self-regarding Shard was tucked out of sight behind the adjoining block, along with the rest of new London’s burgeoning Viagra towers.

London City Skyline at Dusk
blocks of hubris

The visit to Highpoint had begun at the marble and glass reception, carrying on through the centre of the building, past the tea room, service quarters and enclosed winter garden, and out into the trim, landscaped parklands which, unusually, are protected along with the building. 

There’s a swimming pool, several tennis courts, and a caravan of garages that zig-zag down the hill. Our guide said the garages have distinctive promenade roofs; that we’d see from the top floor.

Up at the duplex, a woman followed me out onto the balcony. Look, she shouted, Look – there’s the swimming pool. And so I looked. Then she leaned over the edge. And the garages! she cried. So, I foolishly followed her gaze, my eyes plummeting down, down, down. And with my eyes went my tummy, dropping sixty feet, while my heart leapt in horror.  

I reached out for the balcony rail.  But the rail was too low, barely over the knee. That wasn’t going to keep me from taking a header off the building, plop into the pool. My arms started freewheeling through the warm air. This is how it could happen, how you go over – you panic, you flap, you lose your balance. 

And yet, at the same time, I remained crystal aware, in this slowed-up split second of life, of the importance of not looking silly, for swooning at just a little bit of height, for god’s sake. And so I forced myself to calm down, and with this my left hand found the window sill as I got myself stabilised and disappeared straight back indoors. 


The duplex has a dream home interior, from the bottom to the top, the polished cork titles to the aluminium lights. The double height living room is straight out of 30s American cinema. A place for sophisticated urban types to gather for evening cocktails and trade witty remarks, with the metropolis and a thousand stars as their backdrop. The oval staircase is like sculpture and climbs to the sleeping quarters on the second floor. All four bedrooms have big windows with lots more of London.

Picture of Trellick Tower by Ernő Goldfinger from ground floor up
the man with the Midas touch

To the west, Trellick Tower stands out in silhouette, with its long, thin profile and distinctive auxillary lift and service shaft. The brutalist council block was completed in 1972 and though much reviled at first has mutated into a cult item. The architect was Ernő Goldfinger, who once lived in Highpoint. Goldfinger also built Alexander Fleming House in Elephant and Castle. You go past it on the train and it looks elegant and cool. The Ministry of Health was based there for many years, but staff said the offices made them ill, and the government moved out. 

Goldfinger created a house for himself in Hampstead in 1939, overlooking the Heath – a radical new proposition (for the era) of brick and concrete, with a central spiral staircase and furniture of his own design. A small row of semi-derelict Georgian cottages had to be levelled to make way for  1-3 Willow Road. The demoltion and Goldfinger’s daring new build caused a rumpus. Letters of complaint were written, petitions were signed.*

2 Willow Road, Hampstead, London, by  Ernő Goldfinger
2 Willow Road

One prominent Hampstead resident who opposed the modern house on the Heath was novelist Ian Fleming, who, the story goes, was so appalled by Goldfinger’s plan, he named the arch villain of his next Bond novel after the architect

 

Gold book cover featuring image of spy, gun and glamorous woman
a Bond, a dame, and a shooter

Another version, however, is that Fleming played golf with a relative of Goldfinger’s wife, and the many, colourful stories of the architect’s hot tempered treatment of his staff, inspired the naming. On hearing about the book title, Goldfinger threatened legal action pre-publication. Fleming suggested changing the title to Goldprick and the architect backed off.**

In the spirit of reconciliation, or something, Fleming sent Goldfinger a copy on publication. I looked for it among Goldfinger’s library on a visit to the house earlier in the year – the house is now a museum. I said to the guide (who could have understudied for the lethal Klebb in From Russia with Love) that I couldn’t see anything by Ian Fleming. A couple of people tittered and the guide gave me a chilly look. She said it was in the study downstairs. I scanned the floating shelves on the far side of Goldfinger’s ingenious, swivel-tiered desk, – but nothing doing. Shame, I really wanted to show a copy of Goldfinger in Goldfinger’s lair, but it was not to be.

Preserved modernist dream homes from 2 Willow Road to Highpoint look and feel lovely, if a bit showroom, and there’s a greedy side of me that would very much like to up sticks and move in tomorrow – if I could get the balcony rail lifted. And yet, Highpoint arguably sits on the wrong side of a crux ideological divide, or rupture: a moment in progressive thinking and utopian ideals where Modernism’s vision of  quality social housing encapsulating all the classes – ‘nothing is too good for ordinary people’ Lubetkin once said – slips and slides and gives way to the International Style of architecture, and with it the beginning stages of designing trophy buildings for the moneyed elite. 

 

Black and White photo of modernist entry lobby with glass bricks, concrete piers and title floors
Highpoint I, as was

Lubetkin was a fan and follower of Le Corbusier, king of the Modernists. He took colleagues from his London firm Tecton to gaze upon the Swiss architect’s Parisian villas before getting started with Highpoint. Le Corbusier would later pay back the compliment, making the return trip to north London, where in 1935 he said this: ‘For a long time I have dreamed of executing dwellings in such conditions for the good of humanity. The building at Highgate is an achievement of the first rank.’

Le Corbusier was speaking of Highpoint I – the first of the two blocks that make up the estate. Highpoint was commissioned by office equipment magnate Sigmund Gestetner, when his plans for a staff housing scheme in Camden fell through. On completion the rents at Highpoint I were regulated at first, the goal being to attract a broad range of tenants. But even then the cost remained too steep for most, and the existence of service quarters indicated, or anticipated, the inevitable trend towards the residents being drawn from a professional, middle class pool. 

Black and White photo of modernist entry lobby with glass bricks, concrete piers and title floors
Highpoint I, as is

Shortly after Highpoint I was completed, Gestetner bought the land next door and Lubetkin began work on Highpoint II (completed 1938). This is when the universalism was irrevocably ditched and the grand duplexes moved in. As the apartment floorplans grew larger, the materials turned richer, with glazed exterior tiling and marble entryways leading to personal to-the-door elevators. The guide for our tour, ebullient as a children’s TV presenter, exaggerated in calling Highpoint II the One Hyde Park of its era. After all, Highpoint wasn’t an obscenely opulent buy-to-leave deposit box for rich investors to stash their dodgy cash. But the choice of contemporary reference indicates how far the original vision of affordable mixed housing had receded into dreamland.

The orginal plan for Highpoint II had the deluxe vestibule expanding all the way to the back of the building, with an extended sightline flowing through the glass walls and onto the terraced parklands below. It would have been a sweeping statement of weightless, cantilevered light and space, merging, or blurring, out with in. But Lubetkin was over-ruled by Gestetner, who liked garages, and wanted more of them. 

Black and White Photo of Architect Berthold Lubetkin Pretend Feeding a Plastic Penguin
finally, someone who understands me

Towards each end of the rear garages is an odd-looking scooped-out niche covered with a metal grill. I ask if it’s a heating vent. The guide smiles, pleased I asked. No, he says, these were in fact to be menageries. Lubetkin made room for a tradition from the old country – for cages to keep squirrels and ferrets as entertainment for residents. But the menagerie idea never caught in north London and the niches have remained empty down the decades. 

Some ideas just don’t take; like minidiscs, the unisex toilets in Ally McBeal, or world revolution.

Front View of Slovak Embassy, London a Classic Brutalist Design from 1970
get your visas here

At the Slovak Embassy in Notting Hill,*** the austere brutalist 70s interior is like a modern church. It’s a unexpected sensation to get from a building constructed by a Marxist atheist state. The ceiling beams resemble organ pedals. The dark side chambers, with their wood-panel partitions, take me back to to the sacristy of our Catholic church off the Marylebone Road when I was ten. 

The churchiness is compounded by the hush. I’d expected queues round the block for such award-winning brutalism, but this particular open house is empty and funereal – just me, some embassy staff, and a skinny man with a Jesus beard. 

The presentation leaflet leads with a plaudit from Concrete Quarterly, a journal I’ve never seen quoted in a blurb before: ‘In terms of concrete, it is surely one of the outstanding buildings of the sixties’.**** The piers have been drilled to reveal vertical seams of exposed aggregate. I run my finger up its rough edges. (You wouldn’t want to headbutt concrete like this.) It would be nice to have a penknife on me, to winkle out a mini chunk of coarse, ex-communist concrete – something to take home and put on the window sill next to my collapsible Lenin.*****

Ornamental Glass Chandelier at Slovak Embassy, London
everything is connected to everything else

An intricate complex period chandelier hangs as a decorative centre piece in the main hall, while the huge box windows, through which the early autumn sun flickers, look out onto a grass enclosure with a cluster of stacked plastic garden furniture and rolled-up beer umbrellas. 

The main hall holds receptions and talks and exhibitions. There’s a grand piano and a display table covered with a white linen cloth and an arrangement of promotional literature. I pick up a flyer for an evening celebrating the between-the-wars urban utopianism of the Zlín worker’s city in Moravia, including a talk by architect Eva Jiřičná. The autumn events calendar also features a presentation on Jan Kaplický, architectual founder of Future Systems  – the radical blue-sky design firm behind the Media Centre at Lord’s cricket ground.

Colour Photo of The Media Centre at Lord's Cricket Ground, London
an alien spacecraft waits for the cricket to start

The architectural theme continues with Forma, a series of photos by fashion photographer Ellen Rogers and stylist Emilia Pelech, in which a wan-faced model drifts through the retro-scifi interiors of the Bratislava Airport Lounge, like an abandoned character waiting for history to begin again.

Black and White Photo of Fashion Model at Bratislava Airport
where’s the catwalk?

I used to come to this embassy as a child, and other embassies like it. This was when my father worked for Progressive Tours, a west London travel agent owned by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Prog Tours’ specialism was propaganda holidays on the other side of the Iron Curtain. This required getting visas – which is where the children came in. Child labour, spending long mornings in the school holidays, sometimes whole days, queuing for an ink stamp. The hours were interminable. Ingmar Bergman wrote that ‘Church services and bad theatre last longer than anything else in the world… If you ever feel life is rushing along too fast, go to church or the theatre’. To which I’d add Eastern European embassies. 

Dad was good at delegating, and it wasn’t necessarily a harmful thing for us to do some work. But if ever I think back to the time we lived on a farm, and I was just four or five years old, when with the bribe of a penny he got me to test the electric cattle fence with my finger…. Well, Ouch.

Side View of Slovak Embassy, London a Classic Brutalist Design from 1970
you’re brutal

I leave the building to take some of my trademark bad photos from the pavement. The embassy sits at the top of Kensington Palace Gardens – Billionaires’ Row, one of the wealthiest residential roads in the world. The broad private street linking Notting High to High Street Kensington is lined with plane trees, gas lamps and dull oversized Italianate mansions. The residents include Roman Abramovich, the Mittal family, an Ecclestone, and the guy who founded popular estate agents Foxtons. 

There are traffic barriers at the top and bottom manned by uniformed guards in green huts. With several embassies situated towards the southern end, including the Israeli and Saudi compounds, armed police are a permanent part of the street furniture. Sometimes the police are the only signs of life. 

I lived near Kensington Palace Gardens through the winter directly after separating from Vela. It was part of my daily cycle route to work. The street was always near silent, except for the occasional whoosh of garden vacuums sucking up dead leaves behind the security gates. I never saw a single resident, just heavies, builders and service wagons going in and out of the silent mansions. It’s like the residents don’t exist. 

One night, coming home after dusk, a pair of anti-terrorist cops emerged out of the dark mist clutching matching sub-machine guns, asking where did I think I was going. I said I was going home and pointed out that I had right of access. Not if we say you don’t, they replied.

Address Gate Post for 8 Kensington Palace Gardens,  LondonOpposite the Slovak Embassy is 8 Kensington Palace Gardens, an address with a grisly past. This was once the site of the London Cage, an intelligence gathering facility during World War Two, where MI19, a specialist secret service unit, interrogated and tortured prisoners of war. ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here,’ was the amusing mantra unit head Lt. Col. Alexander Scotland recited each morning as he arrived for work at the Cage.

The London Cage by AP Scotland, original jacket cover
this is not an exit


On his retirement, Scotland went rogue – writing a wartime memoir. But when he presented the manuscript for government clearance, publication was immediately quashed, due to the detailing numerous breaches of the Geneva Convention. Scotland’s home was raided and ransacked by former colleagues. In 1957 a heavily expurgated version of the book was permitted to go to press. Historians continue to debate whether the torture at London Cage was the unauthorised practice of a lone operator or prime evidence of a covert state policy flouting international laws of conflict.

The Cage was demolished in 1961. A fat glass and steel block of four apartments designed by Richard Seifert took its place. Seifert is the missing link in the chain joining modernism to brutalism: he designed Euston Station, the NatWest Tower and Centre Point – the long term empty office block off Tottenham Court Road that was once a beacon for anti-capitalist protest.

From the middle distance, the theatrically huge curtain windows of Seifert’s apartments appear to rise higher than a double decker. I step closer for a better perspective, up flush with the fence. The white gravel on the other side is freshly raked and glows like a luxury item. I wonder if luxury gravel feels different to the plebian stuff I’m used to. I think about bending down, to reach in and grab a handful. I could take a few pieces home with me to juxtapose with Lenin: a witty, mineral-based art work that only I would understand. But what if there’s an attack dog in the compound, tucked out of sight; big, sharp teeth drooling, waiting to be unleashed should I trespass just for one second? 

Best to settle for the safer option and take some pictures. But then I hear a voice, shouting at me. I turn to see a guard in a blue uniform charging out of his little green hutch, waving his hands in my direction. NO PHOTOS! he screams. Really SCREAMS. I say, what? He shouts, read the fucking sign, and goes back inside his box. 

He’s an access nazi. We’ve all met them. In my experience, the best way to deal with access nazis is to say something like, no need to be rude (adding ‘you fucker’ under you breath). Next, you stick your tongue out when they turn their back, or some sort of face. Finally, you take yourself one millimetre off the land over which they reign, and you take a picture – of them. But make sure they see you doing it. That they see you taking the picture is important.

Colour Photo of front entrance to 3-8 Porchester Gate, West London
where Anthropoid began

The noisy Bayswater Road turns out to be a conveniently direct urban leyline, drawing me to my next stopping point, 3-8 Porchester Gate. It was inside this handsome 30s apartment block, with its commanding views over Hyde Park, that the wartime Czechoslovak government in exile planned Operation Anthropoid in the autumn of 1941. 

Czechoslovakia had been under German occupation since 1938. Anthropoid was the code name for the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the deputy leader of the SS, co-architect of the Holocaust and cruel overlord of the Czech regions of Bohemia and Moravia. Heydrich was known by his close staff, in admiration, as the Blond Beast. There’s a plaque on the side of 3-8 Porchester Gate commemorating the plot to kill him. Here’s a picture. 

City of Westminster Green Plaque 3-8 Porchester Gate

I took several photos not only of the plaque but the building. (I’m not sure why so many.) I had to ask a resident smoking a fag to move out of shot. She looked surprised, but nevertheless indulged me. Audacity sometimes pays. 

I first noticed the Czech plaque when out walking one afternoon during my winter stay in Notting Hill, just a few months after reading HHhH – Laurent Binet’s non-fiction novel detailing the story of Anthropoid. 

By 1941, the Czechoslovak government in exile worried that the fate of their country had been forgotten by the allies. The stranded leaders were eager to make a show, to launch a significant strike against the Nazi occupiers and keep the western allies supportive – fearful that otherwise they’d be abandoned to Stalin at the end of the conflict – which of course they were. 

Film poster for Melville's Army of Shadows,

Heydrich was a brutal ruler (Hitler called him the ‘iron heart’ ) and had by this time eviscerated much of the Czech resistance in country. The attack against him had to come from outside. Two volunteers were recruited from Czech soldiers exiled in London –  Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, one Slovak, the other Czech. They were sent for training:

‘You join the special forces and are trained in various grandly named castles all over Scotland and England. You jump, you shoot, you fight, you throw grenades. You’re good…You’re a good soldier. You continue to train for the most important mission that any country has ever entrusted to only two men. You believe in justice and you believe in vengeance. You are brave, willing, and gifted. You are ready to die for your country. You are becoming something that grows inside you, and that begins, little by little, to be bigger than you… You are Josef Gabčík or Jan Kubiš, and you are going to make history.’

The two men were parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the RAF on December 28, 1941. (I read this bald statement and think of the risk and the fear in executing just this, remembering the scene in Jean-Pierre Melville’s French Resistance thriller, Army of Shadows – the look of dread on Lino Ventura’s face when invited to jump out the back of a bomber aircraft, into a pitch dark night sky, somewhere over Nazi occupied territory.) 

On landing, Gabčík and Kubiš travelled cross country to Prague, where over the next five months they finalised plans for the attack. Finally, on May 27, 1942, the two men intercepted Heydrich’s open-top car in broad daylight in the centre of the city. But their machine gun jammed. And then the anti-tank grenade lobbed at Heydrich’s vehicle missed the target. And next Heydrich’s driver started shooting at them.

But the grenade exploded, sending shrapnel into Heydrich’s car and wounding him in the torso. One week later, Heydrich died of complications due to his injuries. 

Kubiš and Gabčík escaped the scene of the ambush, but were eventually tracked down to a hiding spot in the crypt of a church, where they were killed in a gunfight with the SS. The reprisals against the Czechs for the killing of Heydrich were widespread and vicious – historians estimate as many as 5,000 people died as a result. Nevertheless, Operation Anthropoid was the only successful targeted killing of a senior Nazi in the war. 

 

HHhH, a novel by Laurent Binet, front cover
funny name for a novel

Binet’s novel about Anthropoid won a big literary prize in France, has been lauded by many, including Martin Amis, and will soon be a film. Binet dramatises the story of the lifespan of the plot against Heydrich, while also exploring his anxieties over being scrupulously faithful to the past, to Kubiš and Gabčík’s memory, to the people of Prague who resisted, and paid with their lives. 

HHhH also lays out the anatomy of the author’s obsession with the subject. There are patient and not-so-patient girlfriends dragged to out-of-the-way archives by Binet; outlandish bids on eBay for memorabilia or long remaindered books; as well as lengthy discussions on the colour of Heydrich’s limo: it was blue, no black, no, it was blue, black? There’s also Binet’s festering rivalry with other books and films, some ancient now, as he strives to deliver the definitive work. Binet’s novel is funny, gripping, clever and moving. It’s what good post modern fiction looks like.

Caroline Munro, Lamb's Navy Rum advertising poster
you bring the Coke

It was time to climb back on the bike and escape the roar of the Sunday traffic. I took off into the labyrinth back streets of the Hyde Park Estate, passing crescents and lanes dimly recognisable from when I lived and played here as a young commie. Was that the broad pavement where me and my brother improvised a badminton court, the same place I used to hide out for the occasional underage smoke? Maybe that was the block where the horror actress Caroline Munro lived – the woman from the Lamb’s Navy Rum billboard ads. My sister used to play with Munro’s daughter. Her son was in my class at primary.

This is where we posted election leaflets for the Labour Party. Dad may have been working for a communist travel agency, with mum employed as a bilingual secretary at an East German shipping company, but my parents had already begun their transitioning away from Stalin, back towards Roman Catholicism, with Labour a short staging post in their journey of doctrinal transformation. 

Progressive Tours was just off the Edgware Road. We lived there as a family in a tied flat above the shop. In 1974, Britain held two general elections in six months, in February and then October. For both campaigns we posted Labour Party flyers through the letter boxes of the Hyde Park Estate: every last upscale apartment building and luxury post war townhouse. The Hyde Park Estate was a true blue ward. At the time this square mile of west London had the highest concentration of Rolls-Royce cars per capita in the world. The revolution wasn’t going to be launched from here. 

The four siblings were promised a present for our heroic foot slogging. I was hoping for money. But the presents took a very long time to materialise. Over a year later, in fact, on a family youth hostel trip to Gloucestershire. It was towards the end of another long day spent visiting churches, when our parents emerged from an abbey gift shop, and handed each one of us a paper bag. Inside was our belated reward – an individual set of colour rosary beads. Mine were blue.

I still can’t decide if that’s a funny story, or a sad story. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a wind-up. My parents simply considered the beads to be necessary for our long term spiritual wellbeing.

As mum and dad said goodbye to communism, it was time to give back the west London flat and move away; heading east, ironically, to the other side of London. 

 

Colour photo of Progressive Tours, 12 Porchester Place, London W2
Progressive Tours

Over the years since, when sometimes I’ve found myself in the area, I have returned to look at the old place, and to remember. It’s a small street of restaurants and shops just round the corner from Connaught Square. Tony Blair lives on Connaught Square and there are two anti-terror cops permanently stood out on duty, bloated with padded security vests, and MP5s hanging at their side. I want to take their picture, but I know it will only cause a scene.

During the time we lived here in the mid 1970s, the IRA mainland terror campaign was at full tilt. You’d hear bombs going off in the night. The Republican Balcombe Street gang tried to launch one attack a week across the city. There were several assassination attempts, including one on the recently toppled prime minister, Edward Heath. A right wing journalist was gunned down outside his home. I remember walking through Connaught Square to go to school one morning; and when I came back home in the afternoon, a bomb had gone off, blowing a sports car inside out, and leaving a deep, chewed-up crater in the road. 

But was it that deep? Or was it actually surprisingly shallow, and my memory has dug it much larger down the years? I’m never sure what to think of my memory – my ally or a suspect device? If only I could get some corroboration, go back in time, be there again for just a few moments to check my witness statement. 

Black and White News Photo for 70s Armed London Police Training Weapons on a building
the last days of the Balcombe Street gang

The terrorist gang were eventually captured after returning for a second gun attack on Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair. The shooters were chased by the terror police to a flat in Balcombe Street, Marylebone, where they barricaded themselves and took hostages. There was stand off during a six day siege which ended with the gang’s surrender.

I park my bike outside Progressive Tours and am sort of shocked, but also sort of not, to see that finally, after all these years, the travel agent has gone out of business and closed down.******

Detail Photo of Front Window of Progressive Tours, 12 Porchester Place, London W2
end of Progress


The end of Progress. The name above the shop has gone. The tinted ground floor windows are smeared. I peer inside at abandoned office furniture, some of it broken, with tumbrils of rubbish at the back. I can picture the caramel plastic desks of 40 years ago. I see me coming home from school on a warm afternoon, walking through the shop entrance, with my dad sitting behind the desk, supposedly selling holidays to Prague, Budapest, Moscow, Leipzig, Havana… 

Stepping back to the edge of the pavement, I gaze up the building, my eyes climbing to the top floor window on the left. That was my bedroom. I shared it with my brother. Late one night, well past bedtime, I climbed out our window and shuffled along the slippery lead flashing to the adjacent room, where my sisters were sleeping, and banged hard on the glass. (One of my sisters repaid the fright a few nights later. And then I repaid her repay. And then it stopped.) Could that really have been me, the same me who gets frantic just standing out on a balcony?

Title from film poster for The Great Rock 'n' Roll SwindleThe next floor down was the family living room. The current owners have finally disposed of the two flower boxes outside. Last time I passed by they were still up there, the plant holders my mum made four decades ago.  After we gave up the flat, the manager of Progressive Tours passed it along to his son. Landon Temple’s son was film director Julian Temple. It used to tickle me to imagine the director of The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, the man who shot Sid Vicious walking round the Jewish sector of Paris wearing a swastika, watering my mum’s geraniums in the window boxes she made out of spare bits of dark wood. 

 

Absolute Beginners, Film Poster
absolute pants

I saw Temple’s Absolute Beginners in a cinema in Paris in 1986. It’s one of the worst films I’ve ever sat through. I actually felt embarrassed to be watching, or to be British, somehow guilty by association. (Temple’s music documentary films are good though.) Temple was so stressed by the experience of directing Absolute Beginners, making the film that helped kill off the renascent 80s Brit film industry, that his head started buzzing strangely: ‘I had a sound like a bee in my head for three months. I was being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg and this bee wouldn’t let me hear his questions.’

Julian’s sister Nina Temple graduated from the British Young Communist League to running the grown-up version in 1990 – she was the last Secretary of the CPGB. Temple went on to be a founding member of The Social Market Foundation, once described at John Major’s favourite think tank. Her entry in Debretts lists rambling as one of her hobbies. 

From the mid 70s onwards, the CPGB had been staggering under the weight of the failure of world revolution to catch fire across the late capitalist Western democracies. In 1991, as Gorbachev wound up the Communist Soviet hegemony, Temple and her cohorts shut down the British sister party. The Communist Party of Great Britain ditched its name, went through some changes, and eventually returned as Unlock Democracy, a pressure group campaigning for electoral reform. 

photo of the front of Rudolf Steiner House, London
Steiner House, London

At the Steiner House, near Regent’s Park, my Open House tour concludes with some ‘human-centred architecture’. The style is an arts and crafts expressionist blend, with an ecclesiastical twist. There’s a lot of curves, not least with the front elevation lintels and the famous staircase that apparently the ubiquitous Le Corbusier came to stare at on completion. 

Photo of the Staircase at Rudolf Steiner House, London
a curvy concrete staircase

Steiner was an Austrian philosopher and thinker of the late 19th and early 20th century, who hoped through his writing to negotiate a compact between religion and science. Later he worked in drama and dance (we have Steiner to thank, or blame, for eurythmics). Steiner was a man of portfolio careers, eventually becoming a builder, alternative healer and educator. The Waldorf Steiner schooling system, based on the notion of freedom in pedagogy and imaginative play in learning, is his most important and lasting legacy, with Steiner schools all over the world. 


While Le Corbusier may have admired Steiner House for its brilliance with concrete, the pronounced repudiation of modernism’s rectilinear stylings can’t have sat so well. This departure from the standard geometrical finds doorways, windows and stairwells arching, slanted, or off beam. The line of curve should feel liberating. But the fuzzy lighting and the bare concrete and the carved out shape of the wood –  the planetary wood, no less, says the leaflet – remind me of church interiors and pews and kneeling stools; of the smell of wood resin when bored out of my skull at mass as a child, wondering if the earth would ever turn again. 
Stairwell of Staircase at Steiner House, London
I enjoy looking at churches, now. (A kind of vindication for the parents after dragging us around them for years.) But I don’t like it when secular buildings feel churchy. I suppose that Steinerism is a kind of religion, so I might have known. But, whatever, the mood didn’t feel right and I scarpered.

The Bandstand at Regent's Park
Regent’s Park

It was time to be heading home. I made for St Pancras station, cycling along the south ring of Regent’s Park. 

      I had a date at Regent’s Park earlier in the summer. A first date. In the week leading up to our meeting, we’d had a kind of email love affair and said quite lot. It can happen, the tone shifts and the pace accelerates as expectations dramatically climb in anticipation of something big and romantic being about to happen. (This was how it started with Vela years ago.) 

So, it was Saturday and pleasant, and we we were finally getting to meet after five days, mornings, afternoons, evenings, and late nights of heated exchanges, love letters almost. We both joked that being British and meeting outdoors for romance, meant the weather was bound to turn out dismal. But the sun was up and the air was balmy as I met my date from the tube, thinking could this be it? 

We walked over, and into, and round the park, then sat and talked for ages. The signs were promising. We had a coffee and chatted lots more. We both indicated, as we had agreed pre-date we would, that our interest was still live, now that we’d actually met. Both of us smiled a lot. Then finally we left the park in search of a place to eat, stopping on the way for some intimacy. 

Walking past the building where I had treatment for my crooked stick, and perhaps carried away on a romantic zephyr, I momentarily forgot myself, or forgot what we had and hadn’t shared in email and texts during the week. I neglected to keep in mind that in fact I wasn’t speaking to someone I’d known a long time, to whom I could just say whatever popped into my head. I forgot this and pointed to the clinic and said, oh look, that’s where I had my penis operation.

She stopped and looked at me. What penis operation?

Oh. Ok. So, I hadn’t shared this information yet. I remember now. She had actually written earlier in the week, asking what’s this about a crooked stick, why does your profile say Welcome to Crooked Stick? 

A fair question. I’d forgotten I’d put that. The new date was a lawyer; she’d been through every line of my profile. Do you really speak Esperanto, and why? Ah, yes, that was another lame quip. Oh. It’s not the first time someone’s made that joke, you know, she said, not sparing me. 

So we went to dinner and I told my date all about bent nail syndrome while she ate her lamb. After the restaurant, I walked her to the station. There was more intimacy before she got on the train. But there would be no second date.

Black and White Photo of the Modernist Penguin Pool at London Zoo
alone again, naturally

* Of course these days, several decades later, 2 Willow Road is owned by the National Trust, and cared for as a national architectural treasure. 

** Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, in east London, which looks a lot like Trellick Tower, inspired JG Ballard’s novel High Rise. The dystopian tale of urban psychosis features a sinister architect called Royal – who is to be played by Jeremy Irons in Ben Wheatley’s forthcoming screen adaptation.

*** Notting Hill was also Notting Hell, Dotty Hill, and Rotting Hell, for the duration of the exile.  It was a basement flat with the new masonry falling off the walls. You’d hear plaster cracking in the night.  On the plus side, there were two cinemas under five minutes from the door. Two minutes, in fact – I counted. Sadly one of the cinemas has closed since I left the area.


****I’ve like the feel of buildings. Just don’t call it a fetish. Not just fancy cathedrals or modernist shrines, but the feel of all kinds of structures and materials. I like marble and stone and brushed metal and wood. But I also like roughed-up concrete or sleek cement. The stairwell in the lower basement at my work is a favourite. You can run your fingers along the massive charcoal blocks that glow, and the cement is cool and smooth and almost soft like fabric.

***** The build for the Czech embassy took four years and the architects were Jan Bočan, Jan Šrámek and Karel Štěpánský, in collaboration with Sir Robert Matthew, who was also the chief architect of the Royal Festival Hall. 

****** I searched for Progressive Tours online and located the last set of company accounts (up to the end of 2014) suggesting debt problems. There’s a recent article on the complex business affairs of the former CPGB during the last 25 years at BBC online

 

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