There's an awful lot of hope in Kentish Town. H-O-P-E style hope. In a locality criss-crossed by railway lines, with more rail bridges to the acre than anywhere else on the planet, someone, sometime, has gone round giving us all, well, hope.
The lettering style broadly matches - but in all four cases I've come across, there's nothing beyond 'HOPE' to indicate purpose ... is this a name, a brand, an aspiration, an instruction?
Somebody out there must know more. Who painted these, when and why? How many more 'hopes' are out there - and how many have been lost to history?
This blog has a mission to find out - if you can help, do please comment or email (email@example.com)
And then there's at least one case of losing hope in Kentish Town - high on the wall at the site of Kentish Town station overlooking the tracks. There used to be a very prominent 'HOPE' there. For no obvious reason, it's been scrubbed away - but if you look really hard you can just make out the lettering. So there's still, yes, a bit of hope!
So there I was quietly minding my own business on the Saturday evening train from York to Kings Cross, when the woman opposite launched into conversation. 'Do you know you look like Leslie Crowther?'
I looked astounded. Indeed, I was astounded. 'You know who I mean, Leslie Crowther', she persisted. 'You mean the one on Crackerjack', I replied - immediately labelling myself as from the Jurassic era (if I'd have said 'The Price is Right' or 'Stars in their Eyes', at least I would have been Old Testament, or perhaps even early medieval). 'Yes', she said, showing signs of losing interest - 'actually when you were looking down you looked like him, you don't so much now.'
I blushed - partly out of embarrassment at being likened to Leslie Crowther in a full-to-capacity train carriage, and partly shame that I clearly didn't live up to my allotted role.
Relating this anecdote to my astonished household - none of them has ever heard of Leslie Crowther, the astonishment being that someone opened up a conversation on the train - one close relative, who cannot be named on this blog without specific permission which has neither been sought nor given, offered to take a photo to help the world at large assess the likeness.
Within the family, the conclusion seems to be that it's hardly surprising no one has spotted the similarity hitherto. But I'll give you the final word ...
The 'craziest of London's Victorian churches', according to Nikolaus Pevsner - the only place of worship in my part of London to feature in Simon Jenkins' England's Thousand Best Churches - and it has a rare Grade 1 listing ... yet many of those even on its doorstep know little of St Martin's, Gospel Oak.
Gospel Oak - at least the part south of Mansfield Road - hasn't half been knocked about a bit. Oak Village and its westerly extension Elaine Grove are a wonderfully complete and serene survival of the more stylish sort of mid-Victorian terracing. The surrounding post-war estates - build on streets which were bombed out or cleared as slums - are rather less enchanting. And Lismore Circus, at what should be the heart of a reborn Gospel Oak, is about as fly blown as you'll find in inner London. But just a hundred yards away, on not so much a back street as a back-of-beyond street, is the magic of St Martin's.
You can see it from Kite Hill, indeed from much of the Heath - with a curious, awkward, incomplete-looking tower flying the St George's flag. 'I know few towers so tormenting as this one in proportion, modelling and silhouette', wrote the architectural historian Sir John Summerson. 'Most towers answer a question. This one asks.'
The tower must have been even more remarkable when the pinnacles which once adorned it were in place.
The interior is arguably even more outlandish: a spectacular roof - alabaster in profusion - and some exceptional William Morris Company stained glass that somehow survived the wartime raids (there's a railway line, and what was the Kentish Town depot, close at hand).
The building dates from 1865, and was the work of Edward Buckton Lamb, who was - as the church history notes - 'an idiosyncratic enthusiast for the late Perpendicular style, at a time when it was very much out of favour with the architectural establishment.' In other words, about as out-of-step as you could get and still be at the dance. And ever since St Martin's has astonished and agonised, as much as inspired, those within an expert eye on things ecclesiastical.
'To include this church', commented Elizabeth and Wayland Young in their London Churches - 'is not an expression of the authors' liking or approval; rather an expression of faith in the oddness of the human, and therefore of the divine, imagination. Thus must Adam have felt on first seeing the duckbilled platypus'. Ouch!
The Morris stained glass is marvellous. The interior has an ample measure of magic. And rather against the odds, the church has survived as a key part of the community.
St Martin's was established in the low church tradition and that - as best as I can tell - is where it remains. Just as Father Pope's Butterfield-designed St Mary, Brookfield - at another corner of NW5 - has remained resolutely high church.
The original vicarage at St Martin's hasn't survived. But the three-storey church hall (pictured) has - again an extraordinary piece of architecture for a north London side street. It's now, in this most Francophone corner of London, a French language nursery school and kindergarten.
LATER: And if you are curious about what St Martin's tower looked like with pinnacle attached, I've come across this image on the 'net.
Here it is courtesy of a photo from a 1952 volume of the Survey of London:
Now I understand Pevsner, Summerson and their ilk a little bit better!
This appears above the front door of a house on Spring Street in Easingwold, a small market town between York and Thirsk. It's a wonderful place to walk round - lots to discover, of which this is perhaps the gem.
According to a local history . 'God With Us' was the slogan of the Parliament's army at the battle of Marston Moor in July 1644. It worked - they won (the battle and the war, though in the longer term, of course, the monarchy bounced back).
This history speculates that the inscription was placed on the home of a veteran of that victory. It may well no longer be in the spot where it was first installed, but it's survived - and continues to catch the attention and curiosity of all who pass.
A little more than 200 years later another to-the-point inscription appeared in Easingwold, over a school which is now the library. The message to the pupils was, as you will see, fairly blunt - the sandstone is starting to wear, but you can still make out the instruction: 'Learn or Leave':
There's a wealth of wonderful architecture in Easingwold's market square and around - more 2* than 1, but the collective effect is inspiring. The square still has four pubs - the George being the grandest, but all apparently doing well. It has the smallest and most hidden-away music shop I've ever come across, in a garden shed up a footpath at the side of the post office. It's called Tempo - and yes, I was the only customer when I called, apart from someone who was keeping the shopkeeper (I suspect from the big band era) company. I bought an ultra-modern title compared to much of the stock, 'Music from the Summer of Love', which with an (unsought) discount for cash cost me about the price of a pint of Theakstons at the just-done-up Commercial round the corner.
On the outskirts of what is not at all a large town, there are some stand-out buildings - such as the one below, once the local workhouse, and (according to the same local history) brought into service during the First World War to house German prisoners of war:
So you know what a selfie is? Well, this is a self-di. Mehndi applied to the left hand by the right hand. Thoroughly impressive!
The artist and model all rolled into one is a close member of my family who I am not allowed to name on this blog without her specific permission - which on this occasion has neither been sought nor given.
This isn't a good novel - it's a great novel.
The Lowland revisits some of the ground of Jhumpa Lahiri's excellent The Namesake (the film is good too). It's about Calcuttans who head to the US and immerse themselves in the academic world.
But this has a much stronger feel of Calcutta, and a much more powerful story line - about Naxalism, the narodnik-style Maoist-tinged revolutionary movement which gripped many of Calcutta's middle class youngsters in the late 60s and early 70s. Naxalism and the response to it brought the city to its knees, and destroyed a generation - killed, or badly damaged one way or another. The Lowland is a searing, tragic, troubling story - wonderfully told.
Jhumpa Lahiri's novel is shortlisted for the Booker, but not greatly fancied by the cognoscenti. By my reading, she must be in with a good chance.
Naxalism has had other powerful literary chroniclers, other great novels which have sought to explain its attraction, and the whirlwind reaped by those who were won over to it. Among them are the books below: Mahasweta Devi's Mother of 1084 - bleak, unsettling, unforgettable - was first published in Bengali in 1974 and Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Waiting for Rain appeared, again initially in Bengali, in 1985.
I've also been reading another fine book set in Calcutta - just published, it's the debut novel of a friend and colleague, Sanjay Dasgupta.
Other Lives, Other Fragments is an ambitious tale - a tragic family story which is woven alongside the most cathartic events in India's modern history: the terrible Bengal famine of the early 1940s; the acute Hindu-Muslim violence in Calcutta in 1946, and the upheavals which surrounded Partition a year later; the continuing turbulence in divided Bengal; the ripping apart of Pakistan in 1971 and birth of Bangladesh; the anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi following Indira Gandhi's assassination; and such powerful themes as the increasing criminalisation of politics and the rise of Hindu nationalism. There's no Naxalism, but just about every other violent aspect of India's modern political landscape is there.
That's quite a lot to pack in to a novel - but it comes off well. And yes, umbrellas are very important to the plot. But I am not saying more - read it for yourself.
Clive Branson was a communist, poet, artist and soldier - he fought in the Spanish Civil War and died in Burma where he was serving in the British army during the Second World War. I blogged about him recently - and included copies of some of his paintings held by the Tate.
One of the nicest aspects of a blog is the way that one thing leads to another. So that posting helped put me in contact with Clive's daughter, the artist Rosa Branson - and a day or two back I called on her and had the privilege of seeing more of her and her father's art.
Both Clive and his wife Noreen were from wealthy families. They met in London, both uncomfortable with their privileged backgrounds. They married, went to live in Battersea and joined the Communist Party. Rosa tells me that she was named after 'Red Rosa' Luxemburg.
This is a self-portrait by Clive Branson which Rosa has on display at her home (she has given permission for all the pictures you see here to be posted). Rosa's father died when she was ten - one of the last things he said to her was to urge her to be an artist. That has been the biggest spur to her own highly successful and productive career.
Rosa told me of her great pride in her father - in his poetry, art, and more so in the qualities which shined through in his life and politics. She recalled that her mother once said how proud her father would be of her and her success as an artist - and that in turn gave Rosa a great sense of satisfaction.
I am really taken by Clive Branson's political paintings, mainly from the late 1930s - let me show you why:
This last painting, Rosa explained, depicts a wartime barrage balloon which was pierced and deflated over Battersea - and the escaping gas turned the air green.
The painting on the right is again Battersea - Rosa has photographs of these street scenes in more recent years. Can anyone help me identify where they are?
All these paintings have simply been photographed on an iphone - so I'm sorry that they do not do full justice to the originals, but I hope you will get a sense of the style as well as the subject matter.
Rosa also has what she calls her father's archive. His letters have been deposited at the Bishopsgate Institute and the Marx Memorial Library - but she has copies of all his correspondence, as well as the original of a letter, very precious to her, sent by Clive to his daughter during his war service in India.
There are also Clive's school caps - and, as you can see below, the cap he wore while fighting with the International Brigades in Spain, along with his cap badge and another badge from that era:
Rosa's own painting - she still paints for seven hours a day, and has completed more than 600 works - often draws on family history. Below are details relating to her father and his death from two different canvasses:
Rosa has visited her father's war grave in Burma - and his gravestone and the cemetery are shown in the detail above.
On the left is Rosa alongside the full canvas. In recent years she has painted these large story-canvasses particularly at the request of charities and lobby groups, both for display and as a support to fund raising. Her own family (including cousin Richard Branson), as well as friends, neighbours, students and local shopkeepers, often feature in the paintings.
Although Rosa describes herself as an atheist, several of her large paintings feature Christ, saints, angels, haloes, harps and all things celestial - with again those close at hand serving as the models. She recalls her granddaughter creating quite an impact when, while queuing up at the local greengrocers, she pointed at the shopkeeper and exclaimed: 'Look, Jesus!'
The hamlet of the Vale of Health ... probably the most isolated community in inner London, though it's cheek-by-jowl with the city's best known park, Hampstead Heath. It was originally known as Hatchett's Bottom, and seems to have been marshy and distinctly unhealthy, so the name was either ironic or a deliberate rebranding. It's now a collection of fifty or so houses along a small web of streets and alleyways, with a fairground workers' caravan park attached.
You reach the Vale of Health along what is basically a cul-de-sac from East Heath Road. It's surrounded by the Heath on all sides. There's a few hundred yards between the Vale and the nearest other houses. Legend has it that the romantic poets spent time here. Blue plaques reveal that D.H. Lawrence, Rabindranath Tagore and the historian Barbara Hammond once lived in the Vale of Health.
Thee's not much here though apart from some charming and well-appointed houses - no pub, cafe, place of worship ... nothing which serves as a focus for the community.
... and the source of the Fleet
The Vale of Health is sometimes cited as the source of the most renowned of London's lost rivers, the Fleet. Whitestone Pond stands at a higher altitude, near Jack Straw's Castle at the brow of the Heath. But that's the source not of the Fleet but of the Westbourne, which flows much more to the west. There were two main tributaries of the Fleet, rising either side of Parliament Hill - and their damming created both the Highgate and Hampstead ponds. So it reasonable to imagine that one of the sources of the Fleet lies close to here.
The river now flows underground - in culverts, pipes, and beyond the bounds of the Heath in Bazalgette's sewers, until it spills into the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge. But every ditch stream and rivulet round here - even the distinctly puny one featured in this photo which I came across this afternoon - once fed and nourished the river Fleet.
So where exactly did the Fleet once run? The most authoritative answer is given in a fold-out map at the back of Nicholas Barton's The Lost Rivers of London, first published in 1962. I came across a copy this weekend priced at a fiver at the excellent Walden Books in Harmood Street - here's a samizdat copy of part of that map:
You can still follow the Fleet in London's street names - Fleet Road in Gospel Oak, Anglers Lane in Kentish Town, Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell, Fleet Street near Blackfriars. And it all starts near the Vale of Health.
Well, this guy doesn't seem to have enjoyed my talk! Last night I spoke about London Fictions in the truly remarkable surroundings of the Norman crypt (from the 1140s) of St John, the old Priory church in St John's Square, Clerkenwell. Listening in the wings was Prior Weston - that's him above - who died in April 1540 on the very day that Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of his religious order. Spitalfields Life, as ever, has been here before me - here's 'A Dead Man in Clerkenwell.'
Still closer to hand was the tomb and effigy of Don Juan Ruyz de Vergara, a sixteenth century procurator of the Knights of St John in Castile. The effigy is not simply of Don Juan but, grotesquely, of his page boy as well - I'm not clear whether he too is buried in the crypt.
It did seem a touch sacrilegious to be talking about matters so secular and profane - George Gissing, Sam Selvon, Zadie Smith, Colin MacInnes, could you ever hope for a more profane bunch - from what was very close to the altar. But the close to capacity current day audience didn't seem to mind (and indeed I sold out of copies of the book) so I hope the ghosts of St John past were equally entertained.
Last night was part of the excellent Footprints of London Literary Festival - more details here.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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