Monday 12 December 2016

The London Nobody Knows

The London Nobody Knows is a very odd and  compelling documentary - you can probably find it on YouTube somewhere, and I hope you will. Look it up on the International Movie Database and in the section devoted to 'plot keywords' you'll find the following:

River Thames, chains, whip, pub, dancing, lavatory, haggling, catacombs and 'reference to Christopher Wren'.

The director/producer was Norman Cohen. This is his filmography:

1977 Confessions from a Holiday Camp
1977 Stand Up Virgin Soldiers
1976 Confessions of a Driving Instructor
1975 Confessions of a Pop Performer
1974 The Importance of Being Dublin   Director
1974 Confessions of a Window Cleaner   Producer
1973 Adolf Hitler - My Part in His Downfall  Director
1971 Dad's Army Director
1969 Till Death Us Do Part Director
1967 The London Nobody Knows
1966 Brendan Behan's Dublin Director/Producer
1966 The Blue Max Assembly Cutter

Cohen worked as a humble cutter on a 1966 movie called The Blue Max and became friends with one of the stars, Yorkshire-born James Mason. When, soon after,, he was contracted to make a 15-minute documentary about London Mason signed up and the project became more ambitious.

The title comes from a book by Geoffrey Fletcher published in 1962. For nearly thirty years - until 1990 - Fletcher wrote and illustrated a regular column for the Daily Telegraph. The London Nobody Knows was followed by a string of similar publications (London After Dark, Pearly Kingdom, The London Dickens Knew and (perhaps the best) Down Among the Meths Men. I'll come back to that. Long before modern topographical writers such as Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, Geoffrey Fletcher developed an approach to telling human stories, of exploring communities that were fast disappearing thanks to massive re-development and gentrification of the 1960s and 70s. 

Fletcher was drawn to the undervalued, the ugly, the decrepit - he liked stuttering gas lamps, cast-iron lavatories and railway yards, the urban poetry of dereliction.  He was dismayed by the rise of office blocks and the gung-ho redevelopment which would stamp out, he correctly predicted, "the tawdry, extravagant and eccentric". The London he loved was disappearing fast - it was a Victorian city still, but one that had been blown to smithereens by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz. It was very much a post-war city, with bomb sites and widespread neglect and decay. It was shabby and beautiful and full of accumulated detail. The film picks up on this very sensitively.

Ian Nairn’s London and Geoffrey Fletcher’s The London Nobody Knows are the two best books written about the capital in the past half century - both were published in the first half of the 1960s and, in their different ways, have never been bettered. Having said which Fletcher's writing hasn't dated especially well and somebody suggested that a better title for his book would be “The London Nobody who reads the Daily Telegraph Knows.” 

From the introduction to The London Nobody Knows:

There are parts of London never penetrated, except by those who like myself, are driven on by the mania for exploration: Hoxton, Shoreditch, Stepney for instance, all of which are full of interest for the perceptive eye, the eye of the connoisseur of well-proportioned though seedy terraces, of enamel advertisements and cast-iron lavatories.

While Fletcher was billed as the film’s writer and his book informs the whole project, most of what we hear was scripted by Brian Comport, who was given a credit for “additional material”. He was later the screenwriter for the cult horror films Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970), The Fiend (1972) and The Asphyx (1973). It was Brian's idea to have James Mason walk and talk directly to the camera, making the film a personal journey - an innovative format at that time, and an idea that really pays off. Mason's voice - Yorkshire via Cambridge, Dublin, Hollywood - is languid, sad, aristocratic even.

We first encounter Mason in the derelict Bedford Theatre in Camden Town, now long demolished (the site is a job centre). It fixes the tone for what follows, dilapidation and neglect. From there he wanders around the overgrown railway yards north of Euston and we're on our way. The first half is full of fascinating footage and is entertaining if unremarkable - there's some heavy-handed slapstick comedy and the film is speeded up a few times in a chortling Benny Hill style. But - and this is the reason for watching it again and again - almost exactly at the half way mark something happens.

We see a tap dancing busker (Norman Norris, who died aged 96 in 2007), then an escapologist, then the trendies of the King's Road, then - but I want to stay with the tap dancer for now. 

Norman Norris aka Lord Mustard - still tap-dancing until a few years ago in a red frock coat and top hat. In later years he became a well-known street entertainer in Oxford, often going by the names Captain Tap or Colonel Mustard. Born in Glasgow in 1911 as George Pirie, he took the name of Alastair MacDonald as his stage name and traveled  the country as an entertainer. He claimed to have worked with Norman Wisdom, and to have won the Bognor Regis Opportunity Knocks contest in 1981. He said in a newspaper interview I taught myself to tap dance as a boy and also do gurning [making strange faces]. Mostly I entertain to raise money for charity -- I was once a living legend in London."

Back to our film, and a montage of Londoners young and old wolfing down eel pie, mash and liquor in Manzi's, of Chapel Street, Islington, an old man's chomping jaws rhyme, visually, with the gnashing rear end of a council dust cart. Then we cut to an undertakers and Mason delivers with relish some bizarre lines:

When the eating is over and done with there's always the undertaker, at your service. At least we get a decent send-off. We get silk and satin, not the spoon and fork. We're embalmed in cherished memories, not jelly and vinegar.

The camera roams around the dilapidated Kensal Green Cemetery accompanied by the wonderful 1930s song by Leslie Saroney  Ain't it Grand to be Bloomin' Well Dead. The camera enters a derelict sarcophagus. Darkness. The end? No. Then the camera emerges from a Salvation Army band cornet and we're back in the deepest East End. What follows is a kind of hellish afterlife - breathtaking, harrowing and unforgettable.  We're in what Fletcher calls 'the suburbs of hell', a place of bomb sites, wet rags, old mattresses, waste paper and vegetable refuse that - Fletcher said - make the quarter so attractive.

Here we reach the lower depths - the homeless, the meths drinkers on the steps of the synagogue in Brick Lane, old men scavenging  in the gutter for  cabbages at the Market. 

When I got to the Synagogue, I found them on the steps, eight men and a woman.[…] a few young prostitutes, on the job, hung about in Brick Lane. Brick Lane is marvellous, a melting pot of all the nationalities that grew from the loins of Adam, greasy, feverish Brick Lane, the Bond St for the people of the abyss. 

There's that Telegraph perspective again. The same woman. I'm pretty sure, appears in this film, and is named Beth (from her native quarter of Bethnal Green). 

Beth showed signs of recognition, lifted up her weary red eye-lids and stretched out a hand for a fag. I distributed Woodbines. Meths women are heavy drinkers, and can get through three or four wine bottles full in a morning, but they tend to begin slowly and build up as the day wears on. Next to her was Liverpool Jack, an ex-merchant seaman whose nerves had gone West on the convoys, and a man called Pee. He had no other name, nor could any other have done him credit. He was the most abject of the meths men. He had made two or three attempts at suicide, and his last one nearly rang the bell. I thought, sometimes I overdo my relish for offbeat experiences.

The faces that we see are the faces of people who lived through the Blitz. Over eight months of bombing, mostly at night, more than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged and more than 40,000 civilians were killed, almost half of them in London. Much of what we see, I'd suggest, is what we would now describe as post-traumatic stress disorder. 

But life goes on, and vibrantly, elsewhere. We cut to Mason outside a former Yiddish theatre, now a bingo hall: "The enormous modern blocks are on the march, and already threatening each last little shop on the corner. Cut to the Marx family's bustling deli on Petticoat Lane, then to the bleak empty streets around Spitalfields, a vagrant scavenging among the cabbage stalks. Then Fournier Street (at around the time, I think, that the artists Gilbert and George moved in) and, inevitably, Jack the Ripper.

The end is heartbreaking. A cantor sings the Kaddish, a lament, not only for a community now dispersing, but for the very fabric of that community now being wiped out. by the wrecker's ball.

Mason is refreshingly unsentimental - most of Victorian London was squalid, he says, and the modern eyesores taking its place will in time come to be demolished. That's happening now, of course. But Cohen wants us to go out on a laugh and . well, watch it and see for yourself.

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