Our Hidden Shame

[Y]ou know what it’s like; record a television programme you’re interested in and then promptly forget it’s there. Recently I had a barrister in the cab and as we went through Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the evening I remarked that there were a lot homeless queuing up at the soup kitchen. His reply was that once he saw a family of Japanese tourists standing in line apparently thinking it was a quaint English tradition.

Well, when on the Knowledge I couldn’t help but notice the large number of rough sleepers in doorways at night, so when BBC 1 broadcast Famous, Rich and Homeless last June I recorded its two episodes, and like we all do with vagrants promptly forgot about it.

Then recently after the conversation with my passenger in Lincoln Inn Fields I discovered the documentary on my hard drive, and watching it, found the experience a deeply unsettling experience.

They took five successful people who had between them 10 houses and a stately home and dumped them in various locations around London with nothing but the clothes they stood up in and the ubiquitous sleeping bag of a vagrant. Their first night sleeping rough as you would expect was difficult, except for Lord James Blandford who being an aristocrat and heir to Blenheim Palace he was suspected of booking into a hotel.

Their first day working the streets gave them a sense of the difficulties. The actor Bruce Jones who played Les Battersby was the most enterprising, by offering to photo tourists on Westminster Bridge while journalist Rosie Boycott felt shamed when a young girl gave her £40 and in doing so made her feel a fraud.

Comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli after a fruitless day seeking work ended up looking in dustbins for food and ex-tennis player Annabel Croft ending the day in tears.

Devised by the founder of the Big Issue, John Bird and Craig Last from Centerpoint, they questioned all five after a couple of days sleeping rough. All found after only three days they couldn’t find work and the public didn’t even look at them, even with money in their hands they would be refused admission to buy a cuppa from a greasy spoon.

After ‘the Marquis’ as John Bird referred to him walked away from the experiment, the remaining four were paired up with rough sleepers. If they thought their experiences so far was an emotional roller coaster it didn’t come close to how they felt after their new mentors told of their own personal experiences ranging from parental neglect, physical and mental abuse to prostitution.

Yet through it all many of the rough sleepers would look after each other, Annabel Croft was given a list of places where soup kitchens could be found, and Bruce Jones shared a derelict house with his partner.

Their last taste of homelessness was even worse as they were put into hostels for three days, one hostel was for alcoholic men to drink themselves to death and Bruce Jones was shown the paupers graveyard were all the residents of the hostel would end up.

At the end of 10 days Bruce was found to prefer to spend what little money he had on beer instead of feeding himself, Annabel played the angel of mercy while continually worrying for her own personal safety. Rosie a reformed alcoholic was a physical and emotional wreck within three days, but fared better than Lord Blandford who didn’t even last through the first night. Hardeep seemed to fare the best until he started having an unreasonable row with his mentor over a very trivial matter.

The conclusion of this reality programme has to be: Anyone of us could end up on the streets and once there nobody notices or acknowledges your existence, and within days your scruffy appearance bars you from cafes and making an honest living. More importantly, within days you have lost your dignity, self respect and your honesty.

The title of this post is Rosie Boycott’s conclusion, who has written about her experiences in far more emotive terms than I could.

Mansion House

[A]s a life long supporter of the National Trust I find writing this post a very depressing experience, for we in London have destroyed much of our heritage in the name of modernity. Many of London’s demolished buildings were not, of course, of sufficient merit to keep, or in an economically repairable condition, but here I give you eight of our lost London gems:

Carlton House Carlton House, Pall Mall
Thirty years in the making, the sums involved sufficient to virtually sink the monarchy and according to architect Robert Smirke ‘overdone with finery’. Like all boys’ toys no sooner was it finished than the Prince Regent ascended to the throne, lost interest in it and started work on Buckingham House for his palace. By 1827 the whole thing had been swept away. The only lasting reminder is Carlton House Terrace.

Devonshire House Devonshire House, Piccadilly
Completed in 1737 and with footmen who wore epaulettes of solid silver and entertainment that featured the Duke of Devonshire’s own private orchestra you get the idea of what William Kent’s masterpiece for the 3rd Duke of Devonshire was like for opulence. Torn down in 1924 to make way for a car showroom, there is only a large pair of wrought-iron gates into Green Park at the end of Broad Walk marking its place in London.

Dorchester House Dorchester House, Park Lane
The grandest house on one of London’s most prestigious thoroughfares built for millionaire
R. S. Holford by Louis Vulliamy in 1857 and modelled on Rome’s Villa Farnesina. One chimney piece alone of Carrara marble took 10 years to complete, and the principle staircase cost £30,000, more amazing considering the fact that its owner was a commoner. In 1927 the house was demolished and the staircase knocked down to salvage for just £273 to make was for the hotel of the same name.

Lansdowne House Lansdowne House, Berkeley Square
Robert Adam built this in a style that can only be described as a palace for Lord Bute, but it was acquired by the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne before completion. Leased by Gordon Selfridge, before he lost all when he took up with a pair of Hungarian-American cuties known in music-hall circles as the Dolly Sisters, and fell into rakish ways. After that in the 1930s it was brutally shorn of its façade to make way for traffic streaming into Fitzmaurice Place. The main drawing room and dining rooms were preserved, intact, and shipped off to museums in North America while what remained was remodelled for a new “cock and hen club”, the Lansdowne, which has occupied it ever since.

Monmouth House Monmouth House, Soho Square
Clearly a magnificent palace with a frontage of 76 ft, and a depth of 280 ft with extensive stabling and coach houses running along the east side of Frith Street. We know work began in 1682, but little else about the Duke of Monmouth’s Soho mansion besides its staggering dimensions and the fact that the Duke never lived to enjoy it. The eldest of Charles II’s illegitimate sons, he engaged in rebellion and was beheaded after losing the Battle of Sedgemoor three years later. His battle-cry had been an appropriate shout of ‘so-ho’.

Norfolk House Norfolk House, St. James’s Square
Bought by the 8th Duke of Norfolk in 1722 for the incredible sum of £10,000 and occupying the east side of the square (shown on the right of the illustration), it remained in the family for the next eight generations before being sold in 1937. Described as “plain without but glorious within”, it was the birthplace of George III and when it was demolished to make way for an office block in 1939 the music room was removed to the Victoria and Albert Museum were it can still be seen.

Northumberland House Northumberland House, Strand
This last of the great Strand mansion to succumb to development, it was built as the London home of the Dukes of Northumberland. Positioned between Trafalgar Square and the river Thames it somehow survived until 1874, now only the road that bears its name is left. As a memento of their London presence the giant, emblematic Percy lion which stood high above the main gateway for nearly 150 years was removed to Syon House, the Dukes’ estate at Isleworth.

Somerset House Somerset House, Strand
England’s first renaissance palace, designed for the Lord Protector the Duke of Somerset, possibly by the celebrated John of Padua, it was Tudor London’s finest address. Completed in 1550 the proportions were vast with a river frontage of some 600 ft, using material plundered from the cloister of old St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Priory Church of St. John, Clerkenwell. When an attempt was made to plunder more from St. Margaret’s, Westminster, the workmen were beaten back by the parishioners.

There’s gold in them thar holes

London these days is beginning to resemble California’s gold rush of 1849, everywhere you look somebody is digging a hole and staking their claim. If you are a regular passenger in London’s cabs you should look away now for you’ve almost certainly listened to your driver ranting on about this ad nauseum, but for the rest of you indulge me if you will, as I come to tell of the roadworks that now infest London.

It is estimated that in London last year there were 370,000 scheduled roadworks and with 85,000 streets in the capital (tell me I tried to memorise 25,000 of them whilst doing the Knowledge) it has been extrapolated that each street would have been dug up every three months.

[W]ith almost every bridge across the Thames needing repairs, and due to two severe winters as a result of global warming an estimated 180,000 potholes have appeared on London’s streets needing urgent repairs, you have a recipe for chaos. Transport for London have admitted that more than 5,500 roads are being worked on at any time, at a cost of £1 billion a year, which is the highest number of road repairs in post-War London.

How can it be that the Nation’s Capital has got away with the necessity for repairs for so long and almost overnight over one-third of a million locations are now in urgent need of repair?

Part of that answer is that our water mains haven’t been upgraded since Victorian times and also the 2012 London Olympics are putting an extra dimension in the need for upgrading London as we “Dig for Victory”.

Our Mayor ‘Bicycle Clips’ Boris promised two years ago a ‘holy war on holey streets’, so where are the regulations he promised to require utility companies to synchronise their work and fine them if they leave their workings untouched for weeks.

Thames Water it is estimated are responsible for over 60 per cent of all roadworks as they replace their water mains, is it beyond their ability to descend en masse on an area, replace the mains and then move on to a previously unaffected part of London?

It won’t surprise you that London now has a committee for co-ordinating bridge works, so what were they doing allowing that at the same time over 70 per cent of London’s bridges would have ongoing repairs?

At least some enterprising fellow is making a stand, an i-phone app is being developed called iGripe. The iGripe is an application to protest about potholes. You use it to photograph any pothole into which your car, bike or 10-tonne truck has just tumbled. Then it will send the offending photo, plus detailed gripe, to the local jobsworth responsible. Brilliant.

I’ve got to stop griping now the traffic has started moving again through the roadworks, talk to you later; or when you are in the back of my cab . . . stuck in traffic.

Shoreditch snake oil salesman

Like me, you’ve probably passed it dozens of times without a second glance, just another prime site ready for development.

[C]overed by the patina of age and buddleia glowing out of every crevice, it stands on the junction of Commercial Street and Shoreditch High Street, a stones throw from the City of London and The Royal Bank of Scotland’s headquarters, derelict now, Shoreditch Station bears witness to man’s dishonesty and greed.

When in the 1830 England started building railways the profits for investors were enormous returning 10 per cent every year, within 20 years 6,000 miles of track had been laid, but after the most lucrative routes had been built railway companies had to look elsewhere, sometimes building railway lines parallel to each other.

Of all the figures thrown up by Britain’s ‘railway age’ there can be none more fascinating than the York draper and furnisher, George Hudson. From humble beginnings as the uneducated son of a yeoman farmer he had inherited a fortune by his early thirties, using it as a springboard to launch himself into a railway speculation. His extraordinary success gave him the nickname of the “Railway King” at least until he started operating the Eastern Counties Railway in 1839 with Shoreditch Station as its terminus.

It soon became apparent the railway building bubble had burst and there wasn’t enough demand to give investors the return they were promised. As with all these financial scandals, a little “creative accounting” was employed enabling George Hudson to continue to give the dividends promised, using the sale of shares to pay for existing shareholders’ dividends until he eventually fell from grace in 1849 when, as a result, he was castigated publicly as an ill-bred bounder.

Renamed Bishopsgate station, the station continued to operate for passenger traffic until 1874 when Liverpool Street station was opened. It then became a goods depot and Bishopsgate terminal handled very large volumes of goods from the eastern ports, arranged over three levels with turntables and hoists allowing railway wagons to be moved individually around the station for loading and unloading. A fire on 5 December 1964 destroyed the station and it was closed, the upper level structures were then largely demolished and over the next 30 years much of the site became derelict.

To make way for a planned station on the East London Line Underground, to be coloured coloured orange on the Tube map the entire site was demolished in 2004, with the exception of a number of Grade II listed structures: the Ornamental Gates on Shoreditch High Street and the remaining 850 feet of the so called ‘Braithwaite Viaduct’, one of the oldest railway structures in the world and the second oldest in London, designed by John Braithwaite an English engineer who invented the first steam fire engine.

braithwaite_viaduct A proposed re-development of the site will be for the creation of a high-level public park above the Braithwaite Viaduct, with links to existing green spaces such as Allen Gardens, to create a Shoreditch version of the famous New York High Line park. These plans will see up to 1.7 hectares of open space created for the local community.

So at least George Hudson, though dishonest, gave us some fine engineering  in his time for us to enjoy (as seen with Braithwaite arches left), maybe the financial wiz kids of today should walk up Bishopsgate and reflect what happens when financiers become crooks.

End of the line for K2

K2 As iconic as my black cab, the K2 telephone boxes have since 1936, been an intrinsic part of London’s urban landscape.

But who actually uses telephone boxes these days?

With almost universal mobile phone ownership their original function has been overtaken by a number of uses its designer couldn’t have imagined possible.

Their use as a rather well designed notice booth for call-girls is now falling by the wayside as they find more effective ways of advertising their services and using it as a public urinal has its limitations, not least that its cramped compartment renders the user in danger of watering their shoes.

[W]ith brilliant originality they named it K2 for Kiosk No. 2, it was of course preceded by K1 which was constructed in concrete. The design this time in cast iron, by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott had won a Post Office competition three years earlier, and started a whole series of similar looking telephone boxes.

Its distinctive domed roof and all-over red make it the prototype of the classic K6, which was introduced nearly ten years later. Ventilation was provided via the crown in the roof section – it was made up from small, round holes!

Legend has it that the dome was Scott’s homage to the 18th Century architect Sir John Soane, R.A. (1753-1837) whose family tomb is surmounted by a very similar feature. Unlike the tops of modern British phone booths, Scott’s Soanian dome is a proper roof, dealing effectively with rain and litter while also being aesthetically pleasing.

But what makes K2 special is that it was mostly restricted to the London area and considerably bigger than its successors.

In London, kiosks positioned by tourist locations have survived BTs desire to replace them with utility “shower cabinets” and stand as an iconic feature of the city, their purpose now would seem only to be as a photo opportunity for visitors.

Without ever suggesting their removal, could we not find some new use for these beautiful structures? For a start the London Tourist Board should come to an arrangement with BT to pay for their maintenance and cleaning, covered in grime they’re a disgrace.

Perhaps we could use them as one man internet cafes, or greenhouses with orchids.

I am indebted to wallyg at flickr for permission to use his photo of K2; his pages contain a wealth of images and background information about London.