Some buildings are nothing special from the outside but nothing less than magnificent within. Hornsey Town Hall, for instance ... which isn't in Hornsey but Crouch End, and has only been a town hall for thirty of its 80+ years.
From Crouch End Broadway, it looks a touch drab - more like a power station than a hive of municipal activity. And that's in spite of the ample open space which it overlooks - a really fantastic amenity which is only occasionally made the most of.
Hornsey became a municipal borough in 1903. It was another thirty years before the borough took on the task of building a town hall. But when Hornsey did commission a municipal HQ, it did so in style.
Reginald Uren designed what is sometimes described as the first modernist public building in the country - the opening ceremony was on 4th November 1935. Today, as part of Open House, I had a chance to see inside - not the council chamber, which is not currently accessible, but the main hall, and the long gallery which looks out onto the Broadway.
The building is a little decayed, but the detail is all there - magnificently so . Take a look -
Hornsey became part of the London Borough of Haringey in 1965. The town hall was downgraded to municipal offices. The building has been seeking a purpose to match its size and ambition ever since. And broadly, without success. It was for a while on the 'at risk' register.
So Hornsey is - along with similar marvellous buildings in Hampstead, Finsbury, Holborn and elsewhere - a town hall without a Borough.
The hall was once widely used - and indeed Ray Davies has declared that the Kinks played their first gig here, though the Clissold Arms also lays claim to that honour.
Labour-controlled Haringey council has now done a deal with a Hong Kong-based property consortium to develop the town hall into an arts and performance hub, along with the building of a hotel and a hundred or more apartments immediately behind. The plan hasn't gone down all that well with local civic groups.
The town hall should be back in action, reborn, in 2020 (at least that's what they say)!
I'm just back from a few days in New York - an end-of-summer break which included (the first time I've ever managed this) visits to two very contrasting second-hand book dealers. Strand Books, on Broadway and 12th near Union Square, boasts eighteen miles of books, and on the top floor has a very welcoming rare book room. I picked up there this signed copy of a title by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in my view the doyen of the Beat poets and the founder of the City Lights bookshop and imprint in San Francisco. He turns 100 next March.
Ferlinghetti has signed an awful lot of books over the years and this wasn't a first edition or anything like that - that was reflected in the modest price. I'm so pleased to have a signed Ferlinghetti.
Jose Alemany was a Catalan-American photographer with close links to the Spanish leftists; Ray Valinsky was a Pittsburgh-based Communist who gets passing mention in the minutes of the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities.
I asked in the rare book room if they had anything in the way of political pamphlets - nothing, it seemed. But a trawl round the shelves proved them wrong. I came across these really nice anarchist propaganda pieces from a century and more ago:
And top marks for the Strand's very apposite selection of badges - I love them almost as much as old pamphlets:
The following day I came across a very different type of book store - the by-appointment-only Jumel Terrace Books near Sugar Hill in Harlem, approximately 150 blocks north of Strand Books, It's run by an exceptionally knowledgeable bibliophile and librarian, Kurt Thometz, whose passion is for West African pamphlets, often libidinous in nature, and also extends to African and African-American literature and politics.
He's also an enthusiast for the American radical Aaron Burr, vice-president during Thomas Jefferson's first term and now destined forever to be remembered as the man who shot dead Hamilton, the guy the musical is about, in a duel. Burr once lived in a very stylish mansion just across the road from Kurt's place.
A real treat to meet Kurt, see some of his library and his wonderful brown stone house - and yes, I did buy a few items. Take a look ...
It's a wonderfully ethereal landscape - the Bayou, the lattice of brackish, slow-moving waterways in the Mississippi delta. We went on a 'swamp tour' just outside New Orleans, a tourist venture, raucous at times, but a memorable glimpse of this curiously bewitching place.
The light coloured, feathery, ectoplasm-like foliage is Japanese moss, a fungus which thrives on the Bayou.
The big attraction of the Bayou is its alligators - lots of them. The Cajun guides on the boats feed them marsh mallows, clearly a much valued reptilian treat. Some of these alligators swim towards the boats in anticipation of the titbits on offer. They are accustomed to the tourist boats, but there is still a menacing majesty to these beasts.
This was a highlight of ten days in the US - which took me and my son to Miami and New York as well as New Orleans. To quote Hank Williams:
Jambalaya, crawfish pie and fillet gumbo
For tonight, I'm-a gonna see my ma cher a mi-o
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-o
Son of a gun, we'll have big fun on the bayou
What truly wonderful murals - or perhaps mosaics might be more accurate! This is on the east side of Holy Cross church on Cromer Street. It's a late Victorian Anglo-Catholic church which describes itself as 'the church in the heart of King's Cross'.
Holy Cross has a very curious history - being in part funded by the Goodenough family in memory of one of their number who was killed while snooping around in the Solomon Islands (his ship's bell is still used to summon the faithful). And then almost a century after its consecration, in November 1982, it was the scene of a renowned two-week occupation by the English Collective of Prostitutes. But more of that another time ...
The mosaics on the gable wall are in a small garden which is usually firmly locked. But the other day, the gate was open - volunteers were in there, tending the garden and promoting what's described as a green gym.
With their blessing, I popped in and took some close-up photos of the stunning, and very well kept, mosaics.
The panels were created in 1988 by the artists Dave Bangs and Diana Leary - there's more detail here - and the church garden was opened by the Eastenders and Are You Being Served? actress Wendy Richards.
It is a peace garden - and the mosaic below intrigues me the most, featuring a gun and also a poppy flower which seems to be in the shape of a fist. The artists specialised in radical murals and mosaics - Dave Bangs was responsible for the wonderful though now fading mural on Copenhagen Street - and there's certainly a message here.
Do go and have a look - if you're lucky the garden will be unlocked, but you can still get a fairly decent view through the railings.
I've just discovered that Anthony Kirk-Greene - a colonial administrator who became an exacting historian of colonialism - died last month. He was 93. Tony spent the 1950s helping to govern northern Nigeria. (I seem to remember he told me he was once a district officer - a foot soldier of the colonial endeavour). After Nigeria became independent, he taught at Ahmadu Bello University. He was fluent in Hausa.
I came across Tony when he taught me for the 'Imperialism and Nationalism' special subject in the final year of my history degree at Oxford. It was the most exciting and rewarding part of my studies there. I'd never been to Africa, or indeed anywhere outside Europe - but I really took to the subject, and especially the rise of nationalism in sub-Saharan Africa.
Tony suggested that I consider doing a PhD - he wanted me to look at the rise of Nyerere's TANU in what is now Tanzania. I didn't bite - but the confidence he showed in me did encourage me to pursue postgraduate research, though in British social and political history rather than Africa during colonialism.
I do wonder whether the interest stirred and nurtured by Tony Kirk-Greene made me more open to living and working in India and to becoming immersed in its history and politics. We didn't keep in touch after I left Oxford, and it's chastening to realise that Kirk-Greene, when he was my tutor, was about ten years younger than I am now.
But let me, belatedly, say thanks to A.H.M. Kirk-Greene. I'm grateful to you!
The Land of Liberty Peace & Plenty - a bit of a mouthful, but what a brilliant name for a pub. And there's a remarkable back story, too ...
And it's on the tube - on the outskirts of Chorleywood, a twenty minute walk from the Metropolitan line, and flanking the M25, London's orbital motorway.
The signboard is modern; the name is of some antiquity, and pays tribute to the Chartist land settlement here at Heronsgate which for a few years at the close of the 1840s was a beacon of British radicalism.
A plaque on the village hall at Heronsgate pays tribute to the community's founder, Feargus O'Connor, an Irishman who was the most renowned leader of Chartism.
O'Connorville was the first of these Chartist land colonies to be established. Eventually five were set-up. Several hundred Chartists moved into these communities. But all failed within a few years - the land company was declared illegal, the cultivators had little agricultural knowledge, and the plots (none above four acres) were too small, and too remote, to sustain a family.
Heronsgate - the name of the area before the Chartists arrived, and the one to which it has reverted - is now a hugely exclusive and wealthy community. But much to my surprise, several of the Chartist-era buildings still stand. The one above is, I think, the only small cottage that remains which is identifiably Chartist in origin.
Here's a side view of the same building - the modified 'H' sign on the gable seems to feature on all the Chartist buildings at Heronsgate. On the plan below, I suspect this was the cottage attached to the two-acre plot marked as '1 ii'.
Most of the cottages had two storeys and were semi-detached. Here are some that I spotted - what a joy that they have survived for 170 years.
I suspect there are a few more survivals of O'Connorville hidden behind high hedges and long, twisting drives and disguised by extensions. And in addition to the plaque on the village hall, there are other indications that some of the current residents value and honour their community's heritage.
The road names in Heronsgate seem to be another survival from the 1840s - Nottingham was Feargus O'Connor's Parliamentary constituency, while Halifax, Bradford and Stockport were all northern Chartist strongholds.
And to end where we began, the Land of Liberty, Peace & Plenty was emphatically not part of the Chartist colony (though its name is clearly respectful rather than mocking). O'Connor once warned in his newspaper, the Northern Star: 'Is a beer shop near your land? Avoid it as a pestilence. The one enemy which can ruin settlement life is drink. It leads to poverty, crime, disgrace.'
He also kept churches and chapels out of O'Connorville, advising: 'Don't let a religious man come among you.' But there is now a small Church of England church, St John's, in Heronsgate - so another of O'Connor's principles has been overturned.
The pub, by the way, is a gem - well worth a visit. And Heronsgate, too, deserves a pilgrimage. Here's some details to help you on your way!
Just outside Witney in West Oxfordshire, if you look hard, you can find traces of one of the most remarkable episodes in British radicalism.
The Chartist movement is regarded as pioneering demands for a fair electoral system with manhood suffrage. It was a mass campaigning force which embraced both revolutionaries (physical force Chartists) and reformers (moral force Chartists). And while its immediate successes were limited, five of the six points of the People's Charter are now an intrinsic part of our democracy: the exception being the demand for annual Parliaments.
But in the mid 1840s, when it seemed that Chartism was in retreat, Feargus O'Connor - the most renowned of Chartist leaders - embraced a land plan, by which urban workers would have a prospect of being self-supporting rural smallholders. This reflected an arcadian desire for a return to a simpler, purer life, as well as an ambition to qualify more radicals through land tenancies for the vote in Parliamentary elections. It was also an attempt to boost urban wages by reducing the oversupply of labour.
Money was raised with which more than a thousand acres of land were bought at five different locations. These included Charterville, adjoining Minster Lovell, where some of the original (often much adapted and extended) allotment cottages, all of the same initial design, can still be seen.
The tell tale sign of the Land Plan cottages at Charterville is a clover emblem above the main door.
The scheme was ill thought through and the land bought was at best marginal in terms of productivity. The individual plots were much too small to sustain a household. Within a few years, the Chartist Land Plan had collapsed. But quite a few of its buildings survive, including at Charterville the community's school and meeting place.
British History Online has both a brief account of Charterville and some great plans and drawings of the cottages and allotments:
Charterville originated soon after 1842, when Feargus O'Connor's National Land Company bought 244 acres adjoining the Brize Norton road from the executors of John Walker, a wealthy Minster Lovell farmer. O'Connor, prominent in the Chartist movement from which the colony was named, hoped to take families away from factory-living or unemployment in towns and to set them up to be self-supporting on land in the country, thereby also giving them sufficient property to enable them to vote. The Minster Lovell estate was built by national subscription, land on both sides of the road and elsewhere, including Walker's homestead, being divided before 1847 into around 80 regular plots each comprising between 2 acres and 4 acres of arable and a small cottage. By 1848 some 73 of the plots had been filled, settlers coming from as far afield as Canterbury, London, and the northern manufacturing towns, though the experiment was at first unsuccessful because the allotments were too small to support a family, and the new tenants were not used to working on the land. By 1851–2 many of the original tenants had left, and the National Land Company itself was bankrupt and was later dissolved. Local farmers bought or rented the plots, often cultivating them in addition to other land, and Charterville became more prosperous towards the end of the 19th century. A visitor in 1861 described it as 'a large collection of cottages ... all inhabited by labourers and little farmers ... mostly exhibiting comfort, cleanliness and good order', and noted with evident approval both the presence of Nonconformist meetings and the absence of an alehouse. Other social facilities included a school, built by O'Connor at the settlement's inception.
Although it's easy to dismiss the Chartist Land Plan as utopian and an expensive failure, it was one of the more ambitious attempts at creating largely self-sustaining radical communities. It attracted 70,000 shareholders and raised a total of £100,000 (that's the equivalent of about £12 million today - a tidy sum).
There's more about the plan, and those who took part in it, here.
And if you are ever in this part of the country, do take a look. Charterville is not well signposted, but these maps may help.
This elegant memorial is tucked away in a corner of St Giles's Cathedral in Edinburgh. It's a war memorial, of course - to the dead of the Highland Regiment while in Sindh in what is now southern Pakistan.
The regiment served in the Anglo-Afghan war - but the dead commemorated in this plaque did not, by and large, die in battle. They succumbed to cholera. In their hundreds!
There is no extenuation of Empire, and the suffering it caused was not even remotely equal - but it was felt on all sides.
Britain's behemoth - its biggest public institution, its most expensive and by far the most beloved - is celebrating its seventieth birthday.
The National Health Service was the finest creation of Britain's most radical government, the Labour administration led by Clement Attlee which came to power in the 1945 post-war general election. It was the handiwork of the most left-wing of the main figures in that Labour cabinet, Aneurin Bevan. It's not the best health system in the world by a long way - it's creaking and floundering - it's beset by attempts at marketisation and privatisation ... but no government of any persuasion would dare to replace it.
The basic principle that health care should be free to all at the point of delivery is seen as sacrosanct - and what a testament to the British people's sense of social justice.
I don't normally include government publications in my collection of political pamphlets and ephemera. But I was very pleased to come across this wonderful leaflet quite a few years back - I think in a shop in Scarborough. It was issued in February 1948 to tell people what they need to do to get an NHS doctor and free services. It is written with stunning clarity. Take a read ...
Happy birthday, NHS!
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