Cottaging

Summer is over, the football is back and life resumes once more. Now that I tend not bother watching bands I once loved going through the motions at Bush Hall, football is the only thing that gives me cause to visit West London. The place is a foreign country to me, so little have I to do with it. I half expect to be turned away at passport control and told to apply for a travel visa from the Kremlin. The two fixtures I’d been excited about turned out to be games 1 & 2 of the 46; at home to the hated Leeds, and away to Fulham on the bucolic riverbanks of Putney.

My plan had been to arrive a few hours before kick-off and give the extended area the Nairn treatment. I’d quite forgotten that, it being a summer weekend, the Overground would be off and there was nothing but the half-hourly service into London Bridge. Glancing at the tube map, I spared a thought for the tourists who will get on the Northern Line, travel one stop to Bank, then have to walk 20 minutes back in the other direction for the District Line, before leaving the station and crossing the bridge for Monument.

The view from London Bridge is a clash between reassuringly familiar tourist sights -the dwarfish Tower, the grubby Portland stone of St Paul’s dome- and the pushy, nouveau bling of the Shard and her minions. The latter are increasingly taking over from the old like a crowd of women in designer sunglasses pushing through to the best seats at a funeral. Will the new batch of skyscrapers be admired in centuries as we admire St Paul’s? We’re not enjoying them today; they’re not ours as London isn’t ours, we have no stake in it. In the Shard, the Qataris charge you £30 to go up an elevator. Call me a killjoy malcontent, I can’t imagine any Londoner ever getting a warm feeling from seeing the Shard on their skyline. If there’s still an England in 400 years time, though, who knows what its showpiece buildings will be like or how C21st skyscrapers will be judged? The Tower is unlikely to have inspired warm fuzzies in the locals whilst Henry VIII was decapitating anyone he fancied.

While we’re on this topic, halfway across the bridge I can hear the muezzin wail of a Monk Chant rising up from the water, and I’m delighted to see the last of the Millwall boats has recently departed from Greenwich, meaning I can’t be too pushed for time as yet.

I stop for a second to contemplate the gold-topped Monument and its extensive tourist queues. Designed to be the highest vantage point in London, it’s an odd thing now that it barely reaches the waistline of its neighbours. History is so small for us. Recently I’ve been reading a biography of Dante, and wondering if I might have made a mark on the world had I been born in a time when Europe’s vastest cities had populations of 40,000 (answer is that I would probably have died of plague or cholera, or in a feud between rival factions, or…). I wonder if it’s a cousin to those plague monuments in Europe, but it’s much more stark; not even a Roman victory column, just a plain thing with frieze and inscriptions at the base.

Onto the District Line, its map colour an appropriately leafy green. Going Westbound on this line makes me think of university, when a mate who is now a very famous singer lived in Turnham Green and let me kip outside of term time. I’m just old enough to remember when the carriages had wooden floors, as in the painting inside Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish. Along the river, the station platforms are pleasingly curved.

After the fish-out-of-water experience of a carriage full of Millwall passing Sloane Square and South Ken, I disembark at Hammersmith. Leaving via the shopping mall, the very first thing I see is something from Nairn, the Hammersmith Flyover of 1961. The more I take Nairn for a guide, the more I’m developing a taste for this uncompromising 1960s design. The juxtaposition of the lava-black flyover beside the cutesy pink brick of St Paul’s gothic revivalism is strikingly Ballardian. Nairn describes the church as looking “affronted”.

The structure expands upwards and outwards from its spine, working the opposite way to a church nave. Even if the cars are out of sight, it conveys a sense of motion. You feel you’re standing under the wingspan of some giant pterodactyl. For Nairn, the flyover is “exciting to drive over… but the real excitement is underneath… horizon to horizon is circumscribed by this nervous structural underbelly, grooved and finny, never overbearing”. Most of the space underneath is given over to workmen who are purportedly keeping the thing up. In Nairn’s day it is “a shady car park, but better things would be possible – an open air market, for one.”

Anytime I have passed through Hammersmith before, I was bewildered by all the activity in every direction. As well as the station/mall entrance and slightly naff church there’s traffic flying off at diverse angles, the top of Fulham Palace Rd, the muted deco of the Apollo and some attractive mansion flats.

Bearings found, I walk past the church in the direction of King St, Hammersmith’s high street. It starts very well, with the glittering mosaics of the Swan pub (the pub itself is now -you guessed it- a Nicholson’s). There are a few old pubs gathered around this end, amongst them two Wetherspoons. On my visit, the high street didn’t feel too crowded or too empty, too narrow or too spaced out, but with high streets experiencing their well-documented identity crisis in the Amazon age, I didn’t share Nairn’s excitement. “Just a busy shopping street, but this one is exactly right. The shape (height to width) is right, the rhythm of shops along the street is right, the shop decoration fits the place exactly. As at Peckham Rye, the new styles of lettering on shop fronts are used with real gusto”. We can but imagine, as we ponder pretty white-tiled modernist buildings housing KFC.

The new façade to the Lyric theatre and its bespoke piazza are as sterile as most of these municipal projects, trying to will life into dead space. The side-streets leading off King St look more enticing than the main event to me.

Nairn likes the top of the high street best, but as it gets quieter it gets more enjoyably Victorian, until we hit Hammersmith’s very post-war Town Hall Extension. I’m glad I took a picture, as a quick search reveals that it is about to be demolished. I can see people treasuring design like this in 30 years’ time, there’s a touching space-race naivety to it. In its place, shock horror, flats and a “new public square”. Keep calm and ask for nutmeg on your cappuccino.

I’ve been sent this far down King St for a pub facade from 1910, right opposite the Town Hall; The Salutation has “a colour scheme that you would not credit until you have seen it… literally ravishing. The effect is as delicate and penetrating as a Seurat”. The purple and sky blue is an unusual, and oddly decadent combination, perhaps not a million miles from Peacock House in Holland Park. It’s not the Ravenna mosaics but pubs in those days did seem to have a concern for aesthetics that we tend not to bother with today. If you lived in a slum, you could at least spend a few hours in a gin palace.

Having had my fill of King St, I follow the signs to the river, and away from the mid-C20th blocks into cosier stuff.

Hammersmith Bridge is a bit removed from central London and hence not on the A-list of the city’s fixtures, but it was a dummy run for the most iconic sight in Budapest, Chain Bridge. The Magyars are inordinately proud of the bridge and streets are named after the Scotsmen who built it. The style mimics a moat drawbridge, there’s something mythical about its curls, gill-like tiles, the heraldic coats-of-arms and the shade of green paint, I’m reminded slightly of another mitteleuropa structure, Ljubljana’s Dragon Bridge.

Hitting the Thames here highlights the difference of West London. You’re not so many miles from the old docks and converted warehouses of the East End, nor the skyscrapers and boat traffic of the centre, but it’s very placid and a much more bucolic type of quiet than the post-apocalyptic quiet around the Isle of Dogs. There’s lots of greenery, a few rowing club sheds, houseboats with pot plants and putti on deck, the odd pub and some genteel housing. Henley Regatta could be round the corner.

The stretch west of the bridge is known as Upper Mall and Lower Mall, and for Nairn “potentially the best of London’s riverside… there are riverside pubs, good old houses and enough genuine people to ensure that it will never go the way of Chelsea.” These are still in evidence and it’s a cheerful place on a sunny Saturday lunchtime.

“The trouble”, Nairn thinks, “is that Lower & Upper Mall are segregated by a stretch of public garden. This is the site of the creek, filled in and made into an axis leading to the neo-Georgian town hall” (a vast, no-frills hangar of red brick). Presently a diminutive alley at the rear of a pub connects one side of the Mall to the other, which is amiable enough for me. Nairn suggests that “riverside building linking the two walls would make the parts come together and still leave space for the gardens.”

Through the alleyway, Upper Mall seems less of a public space. You can sense the eccentricity of old Richmond starting to encroach. The houses are Victorian, Georgian, esoteric design but the walls are higher to prevent a river view, private property signs abound and there are none of the viewing spots dotted around the bridge. No loitering here.

London has become what it has become, but here there are a few remnants of artistic activity in a very different time.

Nairn half-heartedly suggests continuing the walk “diminuendo” along Chiswick Mall, although it is “not much more than a nice suburban road which happens to have the Thames on one side”. Kick-off is nearing and I decide to turn in the other direction. After the bridge, a marker of our entrance into the Al-Fayed Caliphate and the usual spirit-crushing investment vehicles.

The floodlights appear in the middle distance as the streets gets busier with people heading to the football. They’re in that innocent, start-of-season mood that never lasts long; Rupert Brooke ideals come before a relegation battle as grinding as the Crimean War.

It’s an unusual football ground; so few of the old-school, C19th stadiums are in use, or recognisable, with stands rebuilt to the size of cruise ships. The fancy gables on the façade of Craven Cottage make it feel like an old merchant’s house in Amsterdam or Antwerp. Inside, there’s that famously eccentric touch of locating the changing rooms in a cricket pavilion; instead of a tunnel, players and coaches have to cross the pitch to get to/from the dugouts. How they must loathe this walk after an ignominious defeat. It feels more Linfield than Chelsea and the awkwardness is to be treasured now that so much energy goes into making football an ultra-slick Spectacle with Hollywood values.

The start of the season is a quite favourable time to play Fulham, just relegated after a long spell in the world’s most lucrative whorehouse. Scott Parker is the only household name in a United Nations of wunderkids raised to expect Premiership football, suddenly exposed to the harsh realities of playing teams like Millwall. The striker they bring off the bench cost 4 or 5 times our entire squad, but they don’t want it as much as we do and it’s a smash-‘n-grab 1-0 for the Lions. Fulham’s fans are quiet as mice, but the club are to be applauded for the unusually light-touch stewarding of 5,000 Millwall that makes it an enjoyable day out. In April QPR made us pass three separate airport-style gates and prodded us with body scanners. I was dreading having my Nairn hardback confiscated as an offensive weapon today but they didn’t even bother to frisk me.

Afterwards the crowds disperse across Bishop’s Park, which sits between the stadium, the Thames and Fulham Palace; home of the Bishop of London from 700AD until the 1970s. You don’t get this at Barnsley or Huddersfield. The groundkeeper and coachman’s lodges by the entrance are gingerbread fantasia.

Nairn only mentions the palace to dismiss its “meek old buildings… too many authorities and not enough imagination”, but by virtue of the extreme old age of its oldest bits I think the place merited my quick detour. In a time when Hilary Mantel is Queen, the imagination is provided by the visitor- it being so easy to imagine courtiers and Cardinal Wolsey types rushing across the courtyard to execute sinister plots.

The gardens are pretty, dotted with odd follies like episcopal thrones carved out of treetrunks, and seem fairly underused as a public park. A wedding was taking place so I didn’t have the run of the palace, but was able to creep around the exterior of the chapel and stables.

Leaving the palace grounds, the Bishop’s Park continues, as do the pleasant river views towards Putney Bridge. There is a memorial to those who fought for the Republicans in Spain. The football fans having been conducted to the District Line by now, there’s a relieved sense of winding-down in the air.

Around Putney Bridge “could be marvellous but isn’t”, decides Nairn, as “old church towers on either side are kept company by tall office blocks, part of the attempt to relieve pressure in Central London.” Today’s vista will be familiar to anyone who has ever gone Wren-hunting in the City, or noticed how Hawksmoor’s Christchurch steeple seems a David preparing its slingshot for an army of Goliaths.

The church on this side of the river is All Saints, a star in The Omen and a likeable small building with a medieval tower.

The interior seems to make its mark on Nairn (“the height of neurotic mannerism… everything gloomy and violent, and as direct as an explosion”) but the church is closed by this time. I’m just about able to peek through the entrance gate and see the “great-hearted extroversion” of the C17th memorial tablet behind. I’ll defer to Nairn’s more extensive knowledge of wood-carving when he calls the surround “a sumptuous expression of its exact high point… technically just as brilliant as Grinling Gibbons but more flow in the design and more personality in the lovely cherub’s heads”.

My nose leads me through the graveyard and out past the rear of the church, when I encounter a marvel not to be found in Nairn; the William Powell almshouses. It’s that nutty Victorian recreation of the middle ages again, but a period when top quality craftsmanship, design, decoration and beauty could be found in things that were for the poor, and not just the Trimalchian 0.1%, frankly feels as distant as the middle ages.

The twelve flats would have an almost incalculable value in today’s market, but according to the Internet they are still used as social housing for elderly women. Good luck to them.

There is more fancy Victoriana on Fulham High St and Fulham Rd, pubs with decorative friezes and pointy turrets. A few of the pubs are shut until later, the street is largely deserted and feels like a Western. One wonders if it’s a Millwall lockdown or, it still being August, whether the very rich who live here are all in the Mediterranean/Thailand.

Fulham Rd snakes down towards Parsons Green, and I decide to revisit the site of my first full-time job in London; a record distribution label whose warehouse was at the end of a narrow mews facing the green. It was casual subsistence work for people in bands, including Part Chimp and Million Dead. Page 3 models on the wall and the only woman who worked there sat beside the toilets, processing invoices on the one PC. There was a vast wall of cardboard boxes, one for each independent record shop in the UK. Mornings were putting records in the right box to match the orders, afternoons were about packing. Someone in the yard accused me of scratching his BMW with a wobbly trolley, I firmly denied it & kept my fingers crossed.

The pub opposite the tube station is now ‘Amuse Bouche Champagne Bar’. I wonder if the label is still there; that wall of cardboard boxes can’t be. I try to work out which unit we worked in. The nearest ones are now called The Work, The Immersion Zone, and Cupcake.

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4 thoughts on “Cottaging

  1. Fascinating reading and agree with the nouveau trash of the London skyline. However, a nostalgic trip through Hammersmith, Fulham, Parsons Green, (site of my old school) and old Richmond. All stamping grounds of my youth. Ah!

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