Archive for August, 2008

With all this grey in London (today excepted), it’s goold to be reminded there was once colour, somewhere . . . .

My first attempt at fooling around with photoshop . . .

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Depressing News:

Britain’s economy as bad now as it was in the 70’s

Even if the Independent likes to go for the sensational on their front covers – wasn’t it the Independent who forecast methane fireballs rising from the sea before the century is out, eviscerating all life as we know it? – things do feel slowed down. Frankly, with this sick joke of a summer, they don’t just feel down, they feel depressed. I didn’t go to the Notting Hill Carnival this year – crowds just too intense last year – but I’m sure even that felt grey.

More beggars for one thing. Even the return – admittedly only one, in the form of a short little guy with a beard and a beret who appears over and over on the train to Victoria – of aggressive begging. But you’re starting to see more beggars on the high streets, around the train stations. Regional accents mostly, but a few downtrodden Londoners.

But mostly you feel it in the job market. More ads flogging ‘fantastic’ roles for 15,000, 13,000 a year, or 7 and even 6 pounds an hour. Rents don’t seem to be going down but a few more sales for dress shirts, shoes.

But most importantly, you feel the change in the crowds. Little of the ebullience I felt when I first came back to Enterprise Britain one year and a half ago, when the little matter of all that personal debt was not considered to be a real problem, either here or in the US. Now . . . it seems to be a problem. A big problem. What do folks do when they can’t make the payments no more?

But back to the Independent article, didn’t a recent study find people in Britain were happier in the 70’s than they were now? After all, we had better art. Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola. Punk rock. Hell, even disco seems refreshing now. And we had socialism, of a sort. Whatever the flaws of the pre-Thatcher era – and they were legion – turbo-capitalism sits uneasily with the British.

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King’s Road


Chelsea Houses

Chelsea Houses

King’s Road . . .Sunday Afternoon.
I’d never been to Sloane Square before. I’d read the infamous Sloane Ranger Handbook back in Canada before I came back to England and something about the portrait of English upper class life caught my colonial imagination (I suppose everything British caught my imagination in those days). It wasn’t until I came over and saw the true awfulness of the type up close – those braying accents, the baseless sense of superiority – that the sheen wore off.
The Sloanes appear to have gone now, up to Notting Hill, to my old stomping grounds around Maida Vale and points north which back in the day was prime squatting territory, home to a thousand dole-dependent single men living in depressing bedsits . . . dominating, as they always have, the City, Law, now taking over PR, ‘Media’, and art galleries of ‘the right sort’ . . .

Worlds End Pub

Worlds End Pub

King’s Road, where Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Maclaren had their infamous ‘SEX’ boutique, where Maclaren auditioned Johnny Rotten and launched the Sex Pistols, winds through the heart of Fulham Chelsea – so gentrified now you’d have a hard time imagining that a place like ‘SEX’ had ever existed here or anywhere else. Vivienne Westwood’s boutique is up in Mayfair now, Johnny Rotten pedals his angry drunk Brit persona in LA (where he has made a fortune in real estate speculation, of all things) and Malcom Maclaren – does anyone know what Malcom Maclaren does now?

   Even by the time I reached King’s Road in the middle 80’s, dragged down to the Chelsea Kitchen for the three pound dinner special by a girlfriend who knew all London’s ins and outs. it was a rich man’s neighborhood, but you could still find those nice smoky pubs with the wood counters, music burbling unintrusively in the background, a pint of bitter for less than a pound.

  It seemed so very English, with the dingy tube stations, the alcoholic old men knocking back cans of strong lager in fromt of the tube stations – the taste of clammy sea air, exhaust and cigarette smoke in the air that seemed so very London.

   Like most of London West, the buildings look a little different here than the rest of the city. White or yellow or even light blue facades, with those funny trees out front that look like a Yucca plant. I’ve always thought West London has something not quite English, so that on warm and sunny days, you might almost be in the south of France – or, at the very least Brighton.

I walked right down to the World’s End pub, across the street from the Guiness Estates. Back in the 70’s, a Canadian friend of mine, ten years older than me, used to come down here to watch the Chelsea games. It was pretty rough back then, the time of the Chelsea Headhunters, but, even though his parents were Greek, he remained a loyal Chelsea supporter, wearing the blue Chelsea colours at World Cup matches in Canada. On that afternoon, a match was on, and the street was full of big men with big bellies in Chelsea sweaters, standing in front of the chippie, drinking beer on the pavement. The World’s End was closed for refurbishment – will it open as a wine bar? – but the change from hyper-gentrified King’s Road, with it’s high end chain stores and wine bars and string of Cafe Neros was startling to say the least.
That’s how London is now – pockets of the old, working class areas, surviving like islands amidst this new London that seems much harder to identify. . . .

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Had my hair cut down in Pimlico last week. The barber was a young guy from Macedonia who had a sister in New Jersey. He said he regretted not going to the US with his sister when he had the chance a few years ago. He was a voluble guy, waving his arms around which was a little unsettling at the end when he had a razor in his hand, shaving the back of my neck between bursts of conversation. But when he was finished, he sighed and said:

   “The English idea is corrupt. They don’t produce anything here, they just trade money. So if you have money, they’ll make you more money – but it’ll cost you. And everyone else has to live on the edge of that system . . . “

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Power tools whirring and roaring in the background, plaster dust and, above all, the cloying, poisonous smell of oil paint. For all the ‘healf and safety’ they bring onto jobsites here, charging you £25 for the pleasure of writing the test, they don’t seem to give a damn about oil fumes on a jobsite. Sometimes it’s been so bad your liver actually starts to ache and everyone runs around delirious and red-faced from the fumes . . .

   I’m in the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair . One of the foremen said they’d been working on it since March 2007, redoing the walls, putting in new floors. Spectacular staircase with iron railing and elaborate moulding around the skylight. Forgettable art – cast-iron snowbirds and some conceptual piece of hand grenades, three feet high then in done again in miniature and mounted on a length of wood – all made of coloured glass.  Neo-florentine statues made of black marble. Names like ‘Rites of Spring’. The kind of stuff that only a Russian nouveau-oligarich could love . .

   On Berkely square, a half street up, are four seperate auto dealerships – Porsche, Bentley, Jack Barclay and Rolls Royce. In the Bentley dealership the prices are listed right in the window, as if they expect people to drop in and pick up a luxury vehicle. And who knows, maybe people do . . . A Bentley coupe will set you back 141,000GBP.

    As on every jobsite, most of the guys are Polish. I thought it was a shit job, paying not nearly enough for the work involved ( knees still killing me from running up and down three flights of stairs, not to mention the unsecured scaffolding) but the Polish guys were even more unhappy about it than I was. They knew they were being underpaid, they knew the agencies were a rip-off and they hustling for something better.

    One guy said he lost everything gambling at the casinos. He had an interesting face, a nice watch and expenisve eyeglasses like he used to be someone. He’d gone through three wives, lived in Paris for years (where he also worked as a painter – said they used oil for everything – walls, ceiling). He was a photographer, but he needed to buy a good digital so he could start getting contracts again. Another guy said he’d been in London eight years, that in Poland he’d worked on surveillance towers, going up and down in a sling and been trained by the army, but that to qualify here he’d have to take a two year course. He said he’d been a trucker for awhile, and ended up driving from two am to six in the evening. “And it was a Polish guy who was the boss – they’re always the worst.” He’d been painting for a few years but, “the prices go down,” laughing, “mostly because of people like me.” Still, he’d made good money for awhile, enough to take his wife and son to Fiji. The trip had cost him seven grand GBP.

   “Why’d you want to go to Fiji?”

   He looked at me skeptically. “Why not? It was a beautiful place, I always want to go there . . . ”

   He wanted to go to Puerto Rico next. Like the other Poles, he was contemplating returning to Poland. The exchange rate – he said the pound has lost something like 50% to the euro in the last year – and the drop in wages didn’t make Britain a viable option anymore. He had friends in Manchester who made barely minimum wage . . .

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London Moments . . .

The park down Victoria Road . . .

A woman was lying in an alcove on a piece of cardboard. I’ve been seeing her around the area for a year or more. She usually pushes around a cart with the usual rags, pieces of cardboard, recyclable bottles, or half lies in one of the doorways in an office building after hours. She is a big woman with long grey hair, maybe a little crazy. Sometimes I see people talking to her, but mostly she keeps to herself, one of the many street people that call that strange anonymous area between the Houses of Parliament, Victoria and Pimlico home.

   She was lying on a piece of cardboard, staring into nothing. Around the corner, on the edge of the planter which borders the little park at the top of Stutton Ground, were three Sainsbury sandwiches, still in their boxes. I stopped, thought back to the woman, wondering if I should bother – then thought well why not. I went back and asked her if she was hungry, if she wanted some sandwiches.

   She looked at me with just a touch of concern:

   “Oh no love, I was the one put them out. If you’re hungry, help yourself lad, don’t be shy – that’s what I put them there for, for people to come and ‘ave ’em.”

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   Back home, sort of . . .if ever I could call London home. 

   The recession is starting to bite. Three weeks on, back to my old standby, housepainting (or ‘decorating’ as the term is here. How perfectly British is that) through some agency. £10.50 an hour, before tax, before the obligatory weekly fee of £13.50 (a bargain – another company charged £25) for the pleasure of being paid as a limited company which means only being taxed 20%, filing my own taxes and being able to write off . . . what? 

   One agency offered to send me back to St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, the same place I worked at last winter, for an absurd £7.25 an hour. Only this time it was ‘temp-long term’ – a euphemism for permanent with no benefits, no rights, and no money – and at a staggering £5.85 an hour. Of course, I refused. St. Martin’s is of course outsourcing all their staff, raising tuition, especially for foreign students, and neglecting their campuses as much as they can get away with – at the Southampton Row campus plaster was actually falling from the stairwell ceiling – in the rush to build their new campus at King’s Cross in time for 2012.

   Plenty of ads for ‘fantastic opportunities’ and ‘exciting roles’ at £7.50 an hour or £12,000 a year. After tax maybe £800 a month. How do you live in London on £800 a month? 

   In the news the other evening: 35% hike in gas and 9% hike in electric bills while British Gas sustains record profits. So we’re back to the old old days, which this Labour government was supposed to do away with forever, of the early 90’s recession, when the ‘captains of industry’ awarded themselves fatter and fatter bonuses for their very mediocre services. I still remember the footage of water being trucked in to Yorkshire by the army – during torrential rainstorms – because Yorkshire Water couldn’t deliver. And the chairman, Sir something, receiving his usual  fat bonus that year. 

   The prices here boggle the mind, especially when you convert them back to US dollars. £24.20 for a weekly Zone 1+2 tube pass – nearly fifty bucks US, twice the price of a weekly pass in New York. A box sandwich at Pret Manger for £3.50 – 7 bucks US. A movie? Twelve pounds – nearly 25 US$. A decent room in a shared apartment? At least a thousand bucks a month. The train in from Gatwick? 25 bucks. A Starbuck’s Vente Mild? 4 bucks US. 50 bucks US for a memory card (IGig) for my digital camera. Fish and chips in a pub? Nearly twenty bucks!! A ho-hum boquet of flowers in Victoria, should you be in a romantic mood – a walloping 80$!!!!

   And so on. Even the toilets in Victoria Station have gone from 20p to 30. 

   Forget sushi lunches, new clothes, shoes. Forget eating out, having your own flat, and any luxuries whatsoever. In a city where the average wage is apparently 13,000 pounds per annum a lot of people are bound to be hurting.

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Gavin Young Maloney moved to the Street in 1999 when he bought a former carriage house that had been one of many carriage houses in the late 19th century when this region of of Bed-Stuy acted as a stable yard for the gentry living in the mansions up in Clinton Hill. The carriage house had long since been converted to a warehouse, but the beams and brick walls of the original stable remained.

Gavin’s first task was to install a toilet, which he did by labouring for 18 hours straight, fitting the pipes through the decaying walls into what would become the upstairs bathrooms. This single-minded focus defined the renovations in the months and years to come, as he transformed the derelict floors into the transcendent space with skylights and brick walls I’ve stayed in off and on for the last couple of years.

He slept on an airbed on the ground floor in what would become the guest bedroom, and lived on Chinese food from the take-away with the bulletproof glass up Franklin. Machinery and boxes of garbage choked both floors and the front stairwell had been converted into a conveyer belt. Just getting the floors cleared out took months. He took out the drop ceiling from the top floor, exposing the beams underneath, and widened the ground floor by building a kitchen and pouring a concrete floor, putting in skylights to bring out the natural beauty of the overhead beams and the brick arch leading to what would become the downstairs kitchen.

Upstairs Kitchen

Upstairs Kitchen

The Street was pretty far from being gentrified then. Hookers lined the pavement, even in the daytime, and in the vacant lot up the street, where the new apartment buildings have just gone up, a dozen pit bulls ran free between the the wooden fencing. The hookers, Gavin said, were civil enough when they got to know him, but gunshots rang out at night and the projects on Lafayette were still very much THE PROJECTS.

But Gavin persevered and by the time I came round in 2003 to help finish the office, the two floors were almost finished. You can see pictures here:

Though Gavin was raised on the Upper West Side, parts of his family had long worked construction and he started in the trade in his teens. In his early 20’s, he formed a rock band, playing a few gigs around the city, and he still has a fine singing voice, but his first love was poetry. In his library, he has an impressive collection of the Classics – Yeats, the Greeks, annotated copies of Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses, and even a few copies of Neitzsche in the German – Gavin once studied the language hoping to read Neitzsche in the original. He says studying poetry has helped him with construction – and indeed his interiors, particularly the latest a poetic range of mood, colours and form. But he continues to write poetry and recently put out a book ”The Persistence of Memory’

His interests are far-ranging, and ever-evolving. A couple of years ago, he got into watch-making, and bought hundreds of vintage Dial watches and learned how to rebuild them himself. He buys prints off Ebay and collects art from artists he knows, from art fairs upstate, along with antiques and picture frames which he fixes himself in the house he bought in a small town upstate.
In other words, he is a typical New Yorker – eternally restless, ingenious, brilliant, eccentric – twinned with the city that formed him . . .

Gavin in Living Room of New House

Gavin in Living Room of New House

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