Monday 26 January 2015

On Spiegelhalter's (5)

The campaign to SAVE SPIEGELHALTERS in the Mile End Road has now been running for three weeks. We have more than 1,800 supporters and have been featured prominently in the national press - the Financial Times, The Independent and The Observer - as well as online and on BBC Radio London. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, the comments posted online by turns movie and inspiring. Matt Yeoman, the man behind the scheme has delivered a defence to the Architects Journal. It's all been great fun.

Another online campaign began last work, to preserve the murals by Eduardo Poalozzi that decorate Tottenham Court Road underground station. Around 5% of these are likely to be destroyed during CrossRail construction work. These murals are, we awe told, "one of London's most loved pieces of public art since they were erected in 1984."

I've blogged aboout Paolozzi's work before and I have to admit I'm no fan. I bracket him with writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, but don't ask ne to explain why. 

To my surprise the Paolozzi campaign has, within just a few days, attracted more than double the number of signatures of the Save Spiegelhalters petition, even though in our case we're fighting to preserve an historic landmark from complete obliteration. These forty-year-old murals seem to have caught the public affection and imagination. I've signed the petition because although I don't like the murals I'm opposed to the gratuitous destruction of anything just to save a few bob, and because I recognise that for many people the murals mean something special, and even improve the otherwise ghastly experience of using the station.

But I'm very surprised to hear them described as 'most loved'. Perhaps it's because our public sculpture in general is so rotten there's little competition, even from Paolozzi himself. Perhaps because Paolozzi is hard to like as an artist - or, to be more precise, his work is hard to like. In West London, just behind Olympia, is a huge building that acts as a kind of lumber room for London's main museums, a colossal archive not open to the general public, that I use occasionally for research. The lobby has, on permanent display, a fraction of Paolozzi's private archive of mid-century pop culture stuff - games and toys, mechanical robots and ray guns and rubber monsters and so on. A huge amount of material, some of it quite covetable. One's feeling, though, is that he was less of a collector than a hoarder. Also that what he did with his sources, his works on paper and his sculptures (including mosaics) is less than persuasive - all gong and no dinner. 

The bigger truth is that I've always disliked Tottenham Court Road station, to such an extent that I've long gone out of my way to avoid using it. The Paolozzi murals were just part of an emphatically dispiriting and haphazard environment - decades worth of unfinished 'improvements' that left wires and cables dangling at head height, grubby and dented panelling, exposed concrete and, everywhere, a sense of neglect and dereliction and malaise. It was always crowded, poorly lit, confusing and depressing, although one might argue this worked well as a preparation for the equally miserable spectacle awaiting passengers outside - the horrible squalor of eastern Oxford Street. The Thatcherite 1980s hold little appeal for me either, and I associate (perhaps wrongly) the commissioning of the Paolozzi murals as a malign example of early management culture, of wrong priorities. At the time they seemed an unjustifiable extravagance for a cash-strapped organisation.

But you don't have to like something to support its preservation. The murals are now embedded in the popular imagination, thousands of people like and admire them and we can't allow CrossRail to smash up even more of the West End. You can sign the Paolozzi petition here. here.

Thursday 22 January 2015

On Spiegelhalters (4)

Richard Waite's article about the Save Spiegelhalter's campaign appeared last week on the website of the Architects Journal and is reproduced in full below with their kind permission. Copyright

Photograph by Catherine Croft (November 2014)

Architects Journal  15 JANUARY, 2015  


The architect behind plans to flatten a ‘tatty shop front’, described by Ian Nairn as ‘one of the best visual jokes in London’, has hit back at critics of the proposals.

Buckley Gray Yeoman wants to pull down the remains of Spiegelhalter’s jewellers shop – a ‘holdout unit’ which splits the two Neoclassical wings of the former Wickhams department store in Mile End Road – as part of a new office-led redevelopment.

The Wickhams built the shop in the 1920s in the expectation that the Spiegelhalter family business of clockmakers would eventually sell up. But the Spiegelhalters refused, leaving the ‘plucky little structure’ as a ‘powerful and evocative symbol of East End indomitability’ for almost a century.

Now the Victorian Society and the Twentieth Century Society are urging the public to sign a petition urging Tower Hamlets Council to locally list the building and halt Resolution Properties’ plans for the site.

But Matt Yeoman of Buckley Gray Yeoman has defended the scheme, saying that the two ‘sculptural shards that would replace the two-storey shop front, creating a new entrance, would pay homage to the Spiegelhalters’ resistance.

He told the AJ: ‘The Spiegelhalter story is absolutely key to our design. We have totally embraced that David and Goliath stance which the building represents.

‘We want that void to be at the heart of our development. With this Cor-ten artwork we can be slightly more sophisticated in telling this story.’

He added: ‘Of course, the counterargument is that there is no better symbol of this battle than keeping the existing building. But we say it can be commemorated in a contemporary way.

‘And frankly there is nothing left of that building other than its front wall and four openings. It is empty behind – you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the street.’   

More than 1,300 people have already signed the petition against the scheme, which includes a 1,500m² extension on top of the existing 9,300m² block.

Victorian Society conservation adviser Sarah Caradec said: ‘Spiegelhalter’s is not in itself the most architecturally important building. However, in its context it is not only amusing but it tells an important story about Whitechapel’s development.

‘Tower Hamlets should add Spiegelhalter’s to its local list, and do everything in its power to ensure that this building continues to tell its story to future generations.’


Spread the word - SAVE SPIEGELHALTERS! 

Sunday 18 January 2015

On Spiegelhalters (3)

Plucky survivor

Plenty of media coverage in the past few days for my online campaign to save the historic facade of the former Spiegelhalter's shop in the East End, and here are just four links of many:

BBC Radio London  (interview at 02:49:30), The Financial TimesThe Independent and Londonist

As well as nearly 1,500 signatures we now have the invaluable support of both The Victorian Society and Twentieth Century Society, the latter organisation kindly sponsoring the leaflet and poster campaign which began yesterday.

Three of us spent the afternoon on the Mile End Road. We spoke to hundreds of locals and the response was overwhelmingly positive - most, whatever their background or nationality, were aware of the 'David and Goliath ' story behind the lop-sided frontage of the old Wickham's department store, and were against plans for its demolition.

As I prepared to leave I fell into conversation with a friendly and knowledgeable chap who, it struck me afterwards, probably worked for BuckleyGrayYeoman, the architects behind the scheme. He seemed very informed about the proposals and suggested that a piece by the artist Rachel Whiteread would be a more appropriate commemoration of the Spiegelhalter story than the current proposals (see below). Whiteread, as I'm sure you know, does things with casts of empty spaces, and has been doing so for decades since becoming the first woman to win the Turner Prize. 

He had a point, although if any hypothetical commission involved the demolition of the original facade, no matter how distinguished the artist, it would be no more acceptable than what is currently proposed. You can't, as they say, polish a turd.

The architect Matt Yeoman of BuckleyGrayYeoman has been defending his practice's scheme. Speaking to the Architectural Journal last week he said:

‘We want that void to be at the heart of our development. With this Cor-ten artwork we can be slightly more sophisticated in telling this story.’ 

I've already written about the delicious irony of the heartless void. But a 'Cor-ten artwork' is something new.

It certainly isn't an arwork, not least because there's no artist involved. What Yeoman's plan proposes is that two enormous slabs (or, more pretentiously, 'shards') of thick oxidised metal sheeting will line the walls of the space where the Spiegelhalter's shop now stands. This 'artwork' is Poundstore Richard Serra, a cheapjack and cynical gesture that makes as much aesthetic sense as replacing the noble Cenotaph in Whitehall with a garden centre water feature. And it certainly isn't architecture either - simply the spiteful demolition of an historic landmark and its replacement with a crass bit of interior decorating (call it 'hipster bling')

Can two metal Cor-ten slabs really deliver a 'more sophisticated' narrative? No, but neither could a piece by the award-winning Rachel Whiteread. The self-evident truth is that this simple David and Goliath 'story' doesn't need a more sophisticated narrative because it's already plain for all to see and enjoy as the best visual joke in London. If the plans go ahead the real story will be forever obliterated and the gormless, charmless metal walls will tell another story, and vividly: a tale of heartless appropriation and shallow cynicism.

Yeoman added in his AJ interview:

'Of course, the counterargument is that there is no better symbol of this battle than keeping the existing building. But we say it can be commemorated in a contemporary way. '

Yes - that is the counterargument, and an overwhelmingly strong one, because there is no better symbol of the building's indomitably than allowing it to survive in situ. But Yeoman is quite wrong to claim that it's a battle that's being commemorated because the battle is not over, and it never will be. Spiegelhalter's may be derelict at the moment but it has always stood, and will always stand, for the continuing tension between individual and corporate values, between preservation and destruction, between textured history and impersonal slickness.

We call on Tower Hamlets Council to 'locally list' 81 Mile End Road to secure its future, and we urge the developers (Resolution Property) and their architects to come up with appropriate alternatives (which is no big deal for a distinguished firm). We are happy to support regeneration of the Wickham's sight but will energetically oppose any scheme that involves the destruction of the Spiegelhalter facade. What's left of it is what matters, and it's what we're fighting for. If I might be allowed a sentimental moment - it's the heart and soul of the East End that's at stake.

Monday 12 January 2015

Save Spiegelhalter's (2)

One week into the Save Spiegelhalters campaign and we already have more than a thousand supporters from all over the world -  a magnificent response! Here's a link to my latest blog for the Times Literary Supplement, explaining the background to the petition and its link to Ian Nairn's topographical masterpiece Nairn's London.

The campaign has one simple aim: to get Tower Hamlets Council to ensure the future of what Nairn called "one of the best visual jokes in London'. Here it is - a little two-storey stucco building holding its own against a pompous 1920s department store:

Spiegelhalter's  and Wickham's - David and Goliath

It's currently derelict, in danger of collapse and under threat from property developers who want to knock it down and replace it with the sort of gormless glass atrium that only property developers and their tame architects seem to like. This would be a crying shame and a disgraceful loss. 

This plucky little building has survived the Great War, the Depression and the Blitz, as well as regular recessions, official indifference ad long-term neglect by the current owners. It represents all that's best about the East End - bloody minded, contrarian and fiercely independent. It is also a vital record of the social mix that made the East End what it was - and is. It's also hilarious, and much-loved. Many of the comments on our campaign webspace are from locals who have fond memories of the jewellers' shop in its heyday - visit the campaign web page and read them for yourself. 

Once restored and preserved Spiegelhalter's will be a rallying point for individuals and organisations opposed to crude, exploitative development of the area and (why not?) anywhere else in the country that's under threat. We need - and we are sure to get - thousands of signatures to present to the planning department of Tower Hamlets Council. So we need your support, and we need you to spread the word. Simply enter SAVE SPIEGELHALTERS in your search engine and you can sign within seconds.

     Spread the word - Save Spiegelhalter's!

'Pen is mightier than sword' sources

'The pen is mightier than the sword' is a phrase much in circulation at the moment, and for obvious reasons. Cartoonists offering a visual response to the Charlie Hebdo murders have employed images of pens and pencils, often ingeniously, to support the metonymic proposition that a drawing has greater impact than a bullet.

I was surprisied to learn that the phrase in its modern sense is attributed to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of 'dark and stormy night' fame. It appears in his 1839 play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy:

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

Even more surprising are earlier attributions. Euripides is said to be one (although hard to substantiate) and another is the seventh century Assyrian sage Ahiqar (whose version is translated as "The word is mightier than the sword." Am I alone in preferring the punning word/sword form?).  Shakespeare went for the fussy variation of 'rapiers' and 'goose quills' in Hamlet (1600). Then there's the Bible. Hebrews 4:12 (in the King James Version) reads:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

And finally:

The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.

These are the words of Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim (570-632 AD), better known as the prophet Muḥammad.

They seem pretty unambiguous. 

Sunday 11 January 2015

On tolerance

Here's a 17th century wooden sculpture by Mattheus van Beveren in the Church of Our Dear Lady in Dendermonde, Belgium. It shows the prophet Mohammed clutching the Koran and being trampled underfoot by angels - the triumph of Christianity over Islam. It has not only a symbolic but also a utile function, as a pulpit. Is it offensive?

Image (c) Mohammed Image Archive

Three centuries later here's another image of the prophet Mohammed, from the front cover of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo:

(c) Charlie Hebdo

                                     (Translation: "One hundred lashes if you don't die laughing"). 

It's not much of a joke, is it? And the draughtsmanship is nothing to get excited about (the large format of the publication does it no favours). But - and here's my point - how on earth are we to know this image represents the prophet Mohammed and not simply a generic bearded and turban'd Arab? Cartoons more than any other art form depend on immediately legible types - Yanks in stetsons, football fans with rattles and rosettes, Germans in lederhosen and so on).

None of the handful of controversial cartoons I've seen depicting the prophet - the same ones that so offend some Muslims - are 'legible' in the way that (say) an image of Christ can be read and understood at a glance by reference to episodes in the New Testament from the Nativity to the Crucifixion.

I've always had an affection for cartoons which are so crude in their execution that they rely for any satiric effect on explicit labels (e.g. a sabre-wielding oman with the words ISLAMIC EXTREMISM helpfully added to his flowing robes, or a briefcase labelled "AMERICAN GLOBAL HEGEMONY totted by a guy in a stetson. You know the type of thing I mean. The Charli Hebdo image of Mohammed wouldn't be legible as the prophet even if he carried a book with 'Koran" written on it, because he might just as well be a mullah.

The image above is considered to be so appallingly provocative and offensive that no British newspaper or magazine is prepared to publish it. So although we are overwhelmed with ghastly images from the streets of Paris (jihadists executing a policeman, terrified Jews fleeing a kosher grocery store, armed troops patrolling the boulevards), we are not allowed to see the images the murderous Al-Quaida shits found sufficient reason to justify their brutal slaughter of seventeen citizens. We see only what the murderers want us to see. We do not see what they do not want us to see.

The New Statesman, in an 'act of solidarity' remarkable for its craven lack of balls, published
online a set of Charlie Hebdo covers that were entirely inoffensive, made no reference whatever to Islamism but lampooned the behemoth drunkard Gerard Depardieu. I repeat: no British newspaper or magazine editor is prepared to take the risk of reproducing any of the allegedly offensive covers or cartoons. Why? Because they are afraid some radicalised little shits will tasks offence, come to their offices and kill them.

I was raised in a very religious household. Almost everything about the modern world offended my parents (although to be sure this didn't prompt them into killing sprees with Kalashnikovs). This ranged from short skirts to bad language, poofs, alcohol, smoking, music of all kinds and Monty Python. They enjoyed being offended because the feeling served to endorse their embattled sense of piety and separateness.

People who hold intense religious convictions are pre-disposed to be offended. These people matter, but their quivering sensibilities do not. They are constantly, chronically judgemental but lack the insight to understand that the same liberality that tolerates their religious beliefs also allows for such beliefs to be mocked. We cannot, must not, build a tolerant society around their short-fused and capricious intolerances. Free speech is bound to offend someone (without, as English law has it, causing "harassment. alarm or distress"). If the mere depiction (not criticism or mockery) of the Prophet Mohammed in any medium causes problems the problems rest with those who choose to be offended. But we should at least pause to recall the furore surrounding The Man Born to be King, a 1941 radio play by Dorothy L. Sayers in which an actor portrayed Christ for the first time, at least on the wireless.)

One of many good commentaries on the events of the past week is a short piece by Tariq Ali, writing in the London Review of Books. You might like to read this.

My two penn'orth is that a secular democracy (the French Republique, for example) has no obligation to accommodate religion. Religion, on the other hand, has an obligation to accommodate and abide by the standards of democracy. French values are essentially, and still, enlightenment values. They are also my values. If you don't like them (as they say in Texas) fuck you and the horse you rode in on. Only one European newspaper - the Berliner Zeitung - has done the right thing. See here.

Friday 9 January 2015


To the French Institute in South Kensington this evening, for a brief commemoration, or vigil.

Perhaps a thousand of us packed the street outside the Institute, many youngsters present, many bearing JE SUIS CHARLIE banners. The mood was sombre, friendly and calm. Candles were lit and the organiser read out the names of all those murdered two days ago in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. A minute's silence, then the Hungarian poet and translator George Szirtes read this brief poem (which I hope he will not mind me typing out in full):

So they set out to kill the laughter. They wore death
as if God had been committed to their unique
and tender care. No one should laugh again, they swore.
But laughter comes when it will and is strong, not weak.

There followed a rousing, raggedy rendition of the first verse and chorus of La Marseillaise
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L'étendard sanglant est levé, 
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats ?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
Égorger nos fils, nos compagnes !
Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons !
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons ! 

Those two last lines of the chorus always strike me as odd. ("Let an impure blood / Water our furrows'). They remind me of Rimbaud's lines in the Prologue of Une Saison en Enfer, but I'm too tired to look them up.

There was no nationalist fervour, no gormless chanting (although some chump in a beret with a Vatican State flag was put firmly in his place), but there was a tangible sense of sadness and solidarity. Many of the students from the adjacent Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle were in the crowd, including my son, who studies there. They were all far too young to know about Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine founded half a century ago by a bunch of soixante-huitards, and the sort of thing read occasionally by their parents, but they knew what this was all about. We mingled for a while, chatting quietly. There was a tall, lugubrious young chap with a sign saying FREE HUGS who did a roaring trade. People stood around, talking. A brief chant of JE SUIS CHARLIE never caught fire, and we soon dispersed. 

Reminded on my way home of those lines, variously attributed, to the effect that goodness will always prevail over evil because evil cannot comprehend goodness. But this is not at all about good and evil.

Wednesday 7 January 2015


Masked gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs have murdered journalists and staff in the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo At least twelve are dead, including the editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb;  the magazine’s deputy editor Bernard Maris; and three cartoonists: Jean Cabu, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous. The other victims, unnamed as yet, were members of staff and two policemen who arrived on bicycles to investigate. Others have been seriously wounded.

This has already been described as the most direct assault to date by Islamists against Western values. The equivalent, in Anglocentric terms, would be an attack on the offices of Private Eye, leaving its editor Ian Hislop dead along with a dozen journalists, cartoonists and staff.  Imagine that.

What to feel about this? Anger? Yes of course, and a particularly ferocious loathing for the cowardly racist little shits who perpetrated this murderous crime. Then, on reflection, a far colder hatred for all those who formed and deformed them - not only the radicalising mullahs but also the sleek politicians on all sides who contribute heat but no light to the growing hostility between what appear to be almost mythically incompatible values. 

I hate religious extremists of all kinds. I hate religion. I do not cultivate the friendship of religious people. I have good reasons for this. But because I like to think of myself as a good man I try not to hate those who hate, or for whatever do not share, my values (which are enlightenment values and therefore good values). I believe in Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité and with such a belief comes tolerance, forbearance, understanding. I try, as I say, not to hate those who hate me, but I find it hard not to want to mock them, because I think that would hurt them most of all, and is what they least expect. The murderous dullards behind the Charlie Hebdo massacres thrive on 'respect' - what they cannot abide, what no zealot can abide, is derision, the thought that they are ridiculous and do not really matter.

I want the two perpetrators and their associates caught, fairly tried and appropriately punished under French law (and I sincerely hope they won't die a 'martyr's death' in some suburban shoot-out). I want the satirical onslaught on religion that was typical of Charlie Hebdo to continue and to be intensified, and to spread throughout the West. Not only an onslaught against Islamism, that warped death cult derived from Islam, but against all beliefs in supernatural entities. I wanted to cheer when I heard a Charlie Hebdo journalist say on Radio 4 a few minutes ago that she and her surviving colleagues plan to publish as usual next week, and include a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed.

Meanwhile let's all find some way to subscribe to the slogan

                      JE SUIS CHARLIE. 

Let's get our political leaders to wear the t-shirt. And all the vicars and the rabbis and the moderate mullahs.  And if Jeremy Clarkson wears one while presenting his popular telly programme about motoring I'll take back everything I've ever said or thought or written about him.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Save Spiegelhalters!


What is Spiegelhalters?

It's not much to look at now - a tatty little two-story facade on the Mile End Road (see below). But it's a powerful and evocative symbol of East End indomitability. It stands for something we're in danger of losing, and the time to act is now.

Spiegelhalters, Mile End Road (above, centre) A plucky survivor now under threat

Why does Spiegelhalters matter?

For almost a century this plucky little structure has stood its ground. It looks like the final shot of an Ealing comedy - a triumph of the individual over corporate bullying. 

What's the story?

Here's the entry for Spiegelhalters from Ian Nairn's masterpiece Nairn's London (1966):

Messrs Wickham, circa 1920, wanted an emporium. Messrs Spiegelhalter, one infers, wouldn't sell out. Messrs Wickham, one infers further, pressed on regardless, thereby putting their Baroque tower badly out of centre. Messrs Spiegelhalter ('The East End Jewellers') remain; two stucco'd storeys, surrounded on both sides by giant columns à la Selfridges. The result is one of the best visual jokes in London, a perennial triumph for the little man, the bloke who won't conform. May he stay there till the bomb falls. 

The bomb hasn't fallen yet but Spiegelhalters is now at great risk, reduced to a boarded-up facade and in danger of collapse. The gentrification of the East End continues apace, and the ground floor of the former Wickham's block to the left of Spiegelhalters is now occupied by a congenial cafe called Foxcroft and Ginger. 

What's the idea?

We want Tower Hamlets Council to help ensure the preservation of this remarkable and loveable East End feature. 

Spiegelhalters exposes the inadequacies of historic building protection in that something so humble and, in itself, ordinary cannot really be listed.  Listing is not up to Tower Hamlets but the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, on advice from English Heritage. But Tower Hamlets Council can give it some protection by putting it on what's called a "local list", which would be a step in the right direction

What can I do?

Please show your support by signing our online petition

We need thousands of names. Tell your friends and family, neighbours and colleagues -  spread the word.

What happens next?

We aim to secure extensive media coverage for this campaign in newspapers, architectural journals, magazines, television and radio, as well as new media, and expect support from bloggers and tweeters who may not have been involved in such a campaign before.

When we have an appropriate number of signatories we'll approach Tower Hamlets Council with a detailed proposal for the preservation of the facade. Once its future is assured we'd like to work with the owners and Council to ensure that the space behind the facade is made secure and suitable for commercial letting. 

The site is already within a conservation area. We'd like to see the entire Wickham's frontage - including the Spiegelhalters facade - listed. The facade, with its company lettering restored, will once again become an East End landmark and remain "one of the best visual jokes in London".

Tower Hamlets Council have twice turned down requests for listing so this may be out last chance before the gentrification juggernaut leads to redevelopment and likely loss of the shop front.

Why now?

Long-term neglect, official indifference and the pressures of gentrification mean the need for action is now urgent! The current revival of interest in the life and work of Ian Nairn, Britain's greatest topographical writer, confirms that a new generation shares his belief in the importance of distinctive communities and cultural continuities. The Spiegelhlaters site offers future generations a snapshot of how things once were and is a rallying point in the future for those of us who oppose crass redevelopment and the destruction of communities. 

In China this kind of building is allied a 'nail', as in the embedded nail that cannot be prised out of the plank. For want of a nail, you'll remember, the battle was lost.  Do please add your name to the online petition. Support this worthy cause and spread the word.

Where can I find out more?

To find out  more about the history of Spiegelhalters click here. 


The original Spiegelhalters in the 1920s