Sunday, 17 January 2010


Maiden Luxe recently put up a post called 'London Calling', which contains lots of black and white photos taken there in the 50's and 60's. Well, here are some echoes bouncing back from the other side of the world.

Both my parents were born there, as were my brothers and sisters, and I was only born out of it because of their evacuation during the Blitz of WW2. My father's family were countless generations of East Enders, and judging from the stories my father used to tell, Bow Bells almost deafened him at birth. If you look closely, you might be able to see his birthplace toward the top of the photo above.

I was brought up about 30 miles away from London, so we made regular trips to my parent's old playground when I was a child, via the 6 line railway that stretched between the City and Brookwood, the vast cemetery built in the 19th century to contain the thousands of corpses that London had no space left for, having filled up centuries beforehand. The regular funeral train passed through Woking - a town built around the station - carrying dozens of coffins and mourners at a time. It was nick-named 'The Ghost Train'. By this time, Woking, Esher and all the outlying towns and villages within a 30 mile radius of London Bridge had effectively been swallowed up by the city, as the Regency period houses sprang up in hamlets like Kensington, and the march further westwards was continued by the Victorians. Greater London is a truly vast city, by anyone's standards.

As a child, I knew when we were arriving in central London without having to look out of the train window, as the sulphurous stench of Battersea Power Station became overpowering from 5 miles away. This enormous building, sprawled across the south bank of the Thames, looked like a gargantuan, stricken animal, lying on it's back with it's legs in the air, dirty-yellow smoke pouring from each sole of it's four feet. I could not understand how my mother appeared not to notice it, let alone not gag on it as I did.

Being somewhat strapped for cash, we always took a Routemaster, double-decker, red bus into town if we had not come by car - the black cabs were a luxury we could not afford. People used to jump on and off these open-ended busses whilst they were still moving in those days - something unthinkable in today's H & S controlled environment. I saw someone kill them self once, by hopping off a slowing bus just in time to make smart contact with the steel bus-stop pole which marked his destination.

Once in town, the smells and sights were exotic, frightening and exciting for a child in the 1950's. Plumes of blue smoke pouring from vents and into the street from coffee roasters. Music Hall style, elderly men dressed in battered top hats, performing a soft-shoe shuffle on freshly sprinkled sand, next to a wind-up gramaphone playing faux Egyptian music, in order to entertain queues forming outside theaters in Drury Lane. Tall, smartly dressed, African men with skin so black that it appeared green in the city gloom. Messianic, mentally unhinged preachers wearing hand-painted, heavy wooden sandwich-boards, daubed with messages of imminent doom. The green-coated, top-hatted flunkies outside Harrods, striding into the street to hail taxis for the titled customers standing with piles of shopping in boxes and bags on the pavement. The fantastical windows of Harvey Nichols and Selfridge's, which were windows on to another world beyond our reach. The glittering deco front and staircase of Simpson's in Piccadilly. Indians with turbans, and the hoards of 'businessmen' marching through the throng, wearing pin-stripe suits and bowler hats, carrying umbrellas which were never opened. There were also the hundreds of WW2 bomb-sites - great budlia-filled craters interspersed between shops and houses - which were not built on again until the 1960s.

Often, these sights, sounds and smells were muffled by a thick blanket of yellow fog - a 'pea-souper' - caused not only by the stricken animal in Battersea, but also by the thousands of small, coal fires which everyone lit during the winter months. Sometimes, you could see no further than 6 feet in front of you when the fog came down. I have a DVD of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, filmed in the 1930s, and in it, Holmes and Watson step out of Baker Street and into a London pea-souper. This film was made in California, using English actors. Watson has a suntanned face that could only have been acquired by sitting by a pool in Bel Air, whilst not at the studio. In order to signify to the viewers that this scene takes place at night, the sound of cicadas can be heard chirruping away in the background, and in order to signify fogginess, a few blasts of a ship's fog-horn are heard from what seems to be distance of about a quarter of a mile or less.

The very name London seemed to weigh about 3 tons, when I was a child.

There is one book that utterly encapsulates the whole, timeless vibe of London for me, and that book is 'London - The Biography', by Peter Ackroyd. It's an ostentatious title, I know, but if your vision of London is limited to the Swinging Sixties, Carnaby Street, etc. and Buckingham Palace (not you, Mrs Luxe!), then get hold of a copy - it is a truly wonderful book, even if you only dip into it for reference.


  1. Evocative stuff Tom. Of all your memories, the one that I find most nostalgic is 'The Happy Wanderers', that wonderful group of ex-servicemen who played, sang, and danced for the entertainment of queueing theatre-goers. In the daytime they'd play in Oxford Street; marching up and down in the middle of the road. Remember that? Wonderful.

  2. p.s. Mrs Magnon should have been born in Kathmandu, but there was a sudden outburst of Yellow Fever, and her mother was swiftly repatriated to UK. Mrs M was subsequently born in Woking. Not quite the kudos of Kathmandu, but a town with obvious pedigree!

  3. one of my most disturbing memories of being a child in Fifties London was seeing ex-servicemen on the streets, selling matches and other small things from trays round their necks. they all had disfiguring injuries - faces half-missing, no legs etc.

    i also remember jumping off buses when they were moving, and once falling into traffic which was coming up on the bus's near side. luckily i wasn't run over, but it was a near thing.

    but we took many more risks those days - and more responsibility for our own risks. a pox on today's H and S culture!

  4. I wonder if there is a You Tube video of those buskers? I know film exists. I'll have to look them up.

    So, Mrs M born in Woking, eh? I didn't know that. You could do a complete post on Woking alone, despite the fact it is an incredibly boring town to live in - now... I remember it being packed full of Teddy Boys, one of which was about 7 feet tall. His crepe soles and quiffed hair made him even taller, and if you happened to catch his eye, he would scream, 'WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?!"

    When the Teds died out, the Mods took over, and people like Otis Reading would come to play regularly. Then there is that huge, ornate Mosque, where they temporarily interred Dodi al Fayed (another Harrods connection) - the first in Britain, I believe.

    Ask Mrs M if she remembers the newspaper-seller with shell-shock who used to stand outside the station chanting, "midaymidaymidaymidaymiday....."

  5. Your comment has just appeared, Cat. The newspaper seller falls into the category of the match-box sellers too, I think. Survivors from WW2. Woking was also home to 'Remploy', the company which employed disabled servicemen to make strange furniture. They have only just gone out of business.

  6. P.P.S. Cro - I remember that you were once a dresser for Sandy Powell. I saw him around 1975, when he came to Bath for a fringe festival. He was still doing the sausage routine!

    Give us a post on your experiences, please!

  7. Dear old Sandy. He was pretty hopeless really. In that same show were Roger de Courcey and Don Smoothy; both of whom became 'King Rats'.

    I'm afraid Mrs M wouldn't remember anything about Woking. She was whisked off to Moscow soon after birth. She didn't then return to the UK until the 60's.

    The pic of the 'Teds' dancing in Maiden Luxe's blog is fantastic. I imagine it's not very old. The writing in the background looks modern. Fabulous photo.

  8. Kinell - MOSCOW? I obviously didn't talk to her enough at the time!!!

  9. Then Caracas, then Washington......

  10. I'm guessing Diplomatic Corp Dad here...

  11. Yes, he was our man in.... etc etc. Who's your Chinese friend above?

  12. Don't know, but this is a translation:
    "The only eternal earth is to change........"

    I'm going to have to delete it, but feel free to write in English again, Chinese person.

  13. Here is his/her text in Chinese, as I don't want to discourage legitimate input from that country, but I don't want to be a target for them either:


  14. What a fabulous post and a great picture, thank you for the mention. You are very lucky to have such vivid memories of London at that time. Im seeking a copy of Peter Ackroyd's book now, which I will read with great interest. I spent 12 months in Limehouse in 2001 and while not the East End you describe it was interesting to be able to explore that area of London for a brief period of time. It is a fascinating and intriguing city and I never tire of learning more about it. Cro Magnon, Im going to try and find out a little bit more about that dancing image that you mention above.

  15. Thank you Maiden. I have just written a post that I have dedicated to you (Victims), as I have been inspired by yours too.

    Limehouse? Old Jack the Ripper territory. Patricia Cornwell is convinced that Jack was the painter, Walter Sickert, who ended up living here in Bath. He is buried nearby from where I write. Good luck with the Happy Wanderers search. You will find Ackroyd's book on Amazon, if not closer to home.

  16. P.S. A few people have commented on the great picture of the Thames which I pulled off the net, so I really ought to give a credit for it. Here is the site of the photographer: