Thursday 14 May 2020

On the Hogarth Roundabout

The Swinging Sixties! On the last day of March 1967, at London's Astoria Theatre, on tour with The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens and Engelbert Humperdinck, Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar for the first time and was taken to hospital suffering burns to his hands. It became a regular part of the act. 

A fortnight later, on 19th April, the government of the day debated the Cromwell Road Extension  in West London. as recorded in Hansard:

Mr. Gresham Cooke asked the Minister of Transport if she will provide a temporary metal flyover, similar to that erected in eight days on the A13 London-Tilbury Road, at the junction of the A315 and the Cromwell Road Extension to relieve traffic pressure on the Hogarth roundabout.

Mr. Swingler Yes, Sir. Arrangements are in hand for a temporary flyover at this roundabout.

Mr. Gresham Cooke Is the hon. Gentleman aware that his reply will be appreciated, because this roundabout is becoming a tremendous bottleneck for Richmond and Twickenham traffic and traffic on the M4 to South Wales?

Mr. Swingler We are proceeding as rapidly as possible. 

Swingler was as good as his word and made his own contribution to what we never call the Swingling Sixties. 

The 'metal flyover' was swiftly erected and the temporary solution is still in place sixty years later, an established eyesore slicing north and south Chiswick and carrying eastbound traffic from the A316 on to the A4. Pevsner was no fan. Chiswick, he says, is 'unhappily fragmented' by the Great West Road (1925) and the Great Chertsey Road (1933), both since widened with 'particularly brutal effects in the neighbourhood of the Hogarth Roundabout'. The London Ringway Plan, a gung-ho 1960s project to drive motorways through the suburbs would have achieved the complete fragmentation of the capital, but was abandoned. What's left, in the flyovers at Hammersmith and Chiswick and on a more modest scale at the Hogarth Roundabout, the subject of this piece, are all that remains of that scheme.

The Hogarth Roundabout is all about cars. Pedestrians don't linger and that's a pity, because (as dear old Alec Clifton-Taylor used to say) there is much here to detain us. For some, however, there's no choice - until 2010 the space under the flyover was home to a large number of homeless men, one of whom accumulated a teetering hoard of fragments shored against his ruin - bicycles especially, and umbrellas and supermarket trollies and traffic cones and barricades - a bower bird's nest. 

To the south west behind a long stock brick wall there's the Griffin Brewery, and we know what Ian Nairn thought of their product from his boozy postscript to Nairn's London: 'The best beer by far, to my taste, is Fuller's London Pride, brewed next to Chiswick Church and sold over a wide area of West London.' 

There's a good-looking pub next door that I've never got around to visiting but which at the time of my last visit hosted a gin-sampling night. It's gin that connects the roundabout and flyover with its namesake's most celebrated image - the collapsing slums and spirit-sodden hags of the 18th century. Gin was mother's ruin but it was beer that did for Nairn, who measured out his later years in a solitary binge in the St. George's Tavern, an averagely unpleasant pub behind Victoria station. Jonathan Meades recalls a lunch there with Nairn in the early 1980s, the latter sinking fourteen pints of wallop and promising vaguely to write something about Wren. He died the following year. 

Diagonally across from the brewery are (at the time of writing) the gleaming showrooms of Landmark Cars, a petrol-head Elysium of souped-up Lambos and purring Mercs and turbo'd Testerossas. Not much for us there, so we press on via the subway to the southern perimeter which, constant noise and emissions aside, offers a clutch of covetable properties including the residence, appropriately placqued, where Alexander Pope lived when translating the Iliad. Nairn quoted Pope's defence of pragmatism in Your England Revisited (1965): 'something previous e'en to taste - 'tis sense'. In a metaphysical version of scissors/paper/stone, sense beats taste, and the beating heart beats brain, and this chimes with Nairn's melancholic sense of place, a condition wherein 'the open heart' is an enormous advantage over the drawback of intellect. Amor vincit melancholia.

The roundabout is not round, but an acre or so of muddy amalgam and, a few rough shrubs aside, is mostly barren. Across it all and above it all runs the flyover, the real object of our visit, a battlefield suture roughly applied under fire. It's utterly utile, rawly functional like Cold War-era military kit and looks as if it was bolted together by sappers overnight to allow the movement of heavy ordnance. It has no trim, no flash, no adornment at all, but looks structurally right for the site and (as Nairn wrote in Outrage) 'fitness carries its own passport wherever it turns up'. The flyover is part of the Functional Tradition that the author placed in opposition to the widespread depradations of Subtopia, with its 'wire, concrete blocks, cosy plots and bungalows' - a euphonious phrase for a discordant reality. There's little evidence here of Nairn's despised 'municipal rustic', although recent interventions by guerrilla gardeners led to the roundabout's anachronistic reconfiguration as a meadow. Nairn's fear and loathing for 'the gaseous pink marshmallow' of an expanding Subtopia has already left its mark to the east in the Furnival  Gardens, on the north bank of the Thames west of Hammersmith bridge.

The flyover offers the inexperienced motorist a bracing white-knuckle ride. Traversing the flyover has much in common with a fairground attraction - not simply the thrill intended by the designers, but a darker and more unsettling thrill, which is really a fear, that the whole shebang was bolted together during the night by drunken roustabouts. The visual and aural effects of individual cars battling, as it were, upstream and against the current is quite thrilling. From the motorist's position it's a Chitty Chitty nightmare, a stomach-turning panicky moment as the vehicle lurches onto a steep ramp before suddenly levelling off onto the level aerial roadway, resonating thunderously, swerving first to the left and then to the right before a final lurch onto the down ramp and the relatively manageable terror of joining the eastbound legions.

The meagre stanchions support a single narrow carriageway. Speeding vehicles are penned within low wire barriers in an ariel chicane high above the tree line. Detractors claim it looks semi-derelict and they're not wide of the mark - on close inspection parts of the uprights appear to be rotting, and from certain positions the structure resembles the wrecked frame of an airship, buckled and twisted and rusting away quietly. There are worse things, of course, for a structure to resemble - a walkie-talkie, for instance. The flyover isn't playful, self-referential, ironic or iconic, it isn't about something - it's just there

From our pedestrian perspective the flyover shares its appeal with other long-established temporary solutions such as the spruced-up wartime prefabs still squatting doggedly in Catford's Excalibur Estate (another Nairnian banlieu, home to Owen Luder's brutalist Eros House of 1962 which was, Nairn wrote 'full of firm gentleness.'); or the colossal airship sheds at Cardington (where Nairn's father was employed until the majestic R101, the site's raison d'être, crashed on its maiden flight); or the haphazard settlements of Peacehaven in Sussex and Bewdley by the River Severm; or the damp and chilly wooden classroom annexes, sheds really, at my old school, no doubt still in use.

There's a deadpan literalness to the Hogarth Roundabout flyover, not only in the rigid fact of its presence but in its aggressive lack of finesse. No conciliation is attempted with, and no endorsement sought from, the adjacent Georgian buildings. Even by the modest standards of low-budget bolt-together bridges it's gawky, spindly, not fully resolved. It has a makeshift quality, and I do mean quality. There is no question of enhancing the structure with butch masonry, or atmospheric night lighting or a striking paint job. No murals either, thank heavens, and surprisingly no advertising or flyposting or even graffiti - none at all. It isn't good or bad architecture because it isn't architecture at all but a piece of structural engineering that seems good for another century at least.
It proclaims its own structural integrity in its nakedness - the bridge stripped bare by her engineers, even. It lacks pretension, and with a minimum of maintenance discharges its humdrum job of debottlenecking this bit of West London. It's neither gateway, portal or icon. Nobody seems to like it much but neither does it attract vilification. What would Nairn have made of it?

It was built too late for inclusion in Nairn's London (1966) but I think he would have approved. The presence of the nearby brewery and the riverside pubs are a bonus, and he certainly wasn't opposed to structural standardisation, citing the canal system (there's a nice knock-down argument for you) and adding that 'standard fittings are like the nuts and bolts of a Meccano set: the model is put together with them, but they don't dominate the finished product because they are unobtrusive, supportive and impersonal.' He had nothing but praise for the Hammersmith Flyover a mile to the west:

'Exciting to drive over, if you can spare a glance, level with the affronted blank clerestory of the church. But the real excitement is underneath. The flyover is carried on segmental spans between a single line of columns. Horizon to horizon is circumscribed by the nervous structural under-belly, grooved and finny, never overbearing even though it is the biggest thing in the view. The concrete fork has the same kind of humanity as Charles Holden's early underground stations. The space underneath makes a shady car park, at the moment; but better things would be possible - an open-air market, for one.'

Likewise, of the elevated section of the Great West Road a few miles further west in Brentford: 'Threading your way underneath is an exciting business, especially around the interchange near Lionel Road. Ramps up, ramps down, and the super-human march of concrete beams as far as the eye can sea. Technology in the raw, where the Hammersmith Flyover is technology controlled and confined: and each right for the site.'

Completed in 1962, The Hammersmith Flyover was built by the civil engineering contractors Marples, Ridgway and Partners founded in 1948 with a five-ton army truck and a crane, which during he 1960s won contracts to build power stations and a hydroelectric scheme in Scotland. Ernest Marples was an 80% shareholder in the firm and as corrupt as they come. In those innocent days (a year before the Profumo Affair) the slightest whiff of graft was avoided and any conflict of interest rendered simply unthinkable by some nimble accounting. On his appointment as a minister Ernie sold the shares to his wife, allowing him to buy them back from her on leaving government.  There's something so egregiously bent about this that it's almost admirable.

In 1959 Marples had opened the M1 motorway, making some wild-eyed comments to the assembled press that could have been delivered by Peter Cook in Beyond the Fringe: 'On this magnificent road the speed which can easily be reached is so great that senses may be numbed and judgement warped. The margin of error gets smaller as speed gets faster. New motoring techniques must be learnt. So here are my two suggested mottos: First: take it easy, motorist! And second: if in doubt, don't!.' 

Such thoughtful caution was entirely out of character for Marples, whose political career and social standing came to a sudden end in a collision of tax fraud, Rachmanism, sleaze and tarts. He fled to Monaco on the night ferry in 1975 and spent the rest of his life in a Rhône château with a vineyard and happy memories of selfless public service and personal enrichment. His legacy is substantial: he introduced parking meters and the MOT test, single yellow lines, double yellow lines and traffic wardens; he dissolved the British Transport Commission (which oversaw railways, canals and freight transport) and paved the way for a Tory crony called Dr. Beeching to wreak havoc on the nationalised railway system. 

As long as it remains in place the flyover will never be embedded, never be softened by time and use and affectionate regard. It's likely to remain a temporary solution indefinitely, unless a local architect called Richard Gooden gets his way and the cacophonous place becomes an underpass beneath a water meadow. In his scheme part of the A4 would be buried, a new green space shield local houses from the cacophony and we shall be offered (the heart sinks) a 'terraced landform'.  He proposes a new public space to be called the Hogarth Eyot, linking the riverside to the north side of the A4. This is Nairn's Municipal Rustic with knobs on.

The Hogarth Roundabout flyover was built using the Bridgway system, the sole product of a company owned by Marples.
A similar structure can be found in the Army and Navy Roundabout (built 1978) on the A138 - 'one of the most famous roundabouts in Chelmsford, Essex' as one website engagingly describes it. This has the added attraction of being both single lane and bidirectional, traffic heading citywards until 2:30pm and in the opposite direction after that, until the flyover closes at 9pm. Head-on collisions are commonplace.

Shortly after becoming a junior minister in November 1951, Marples resigned as Managing Director of Marples Ridgway but continued to hold most of the firm's shares. When appointed Minister of Transport in October 1959, Marples undertook to sell his 80% shareholding in the company as he was now in clear breach of the House of Commons' rules on conflicts of interest, but for no doubt honourable reasons he failed to do so. When the press reported that his firm had won the tender to build the Hammersnith Flyover (the Ministry of Transport's engineers having endorsed the London County Council's rejection of a much lower tender. Marples, caught on the hop, sold his shares to his wife, allowing him to buy them back at the original price after leaving office.

The Chiswick Flyover is a few minutes' drive to the west of the Hogarth Roundabout and - urban legend has it -  is the final resting place of East End villains who didn't get on with the Kray Twins. It was opened by the American starlet Jayne Mansfield who was in England to film Too Hot to Handle at MGM's Boreham Wood studios and arrived in a limo to a chorus of workmen's wolf whistles. She cut the official red ribbon with a pair of gold-plated scissors and patted the contractor's bulldog on the head. 'Sweet!' she was reported as saying. Letters to the Brentford and Chiswick Times complained about the choice of the American star. The organisers replied that they had approached both Donald Campbell and Stirling Moss, who were unavailable. One can only marvel at the line of reasoning that led to an invitation to Miss Mansfield, or the incentives that persuaded her to accept the honour. The organisers insisted:

'We felt […] that 30 months work and the completion of Britain’s first flyover deserved a little celebration”, […] We could see no reason why any politician or fuddy-duddy should be invited. We feel that Miss Mansfield did a first-class job in a very charming manner'

(Mansfield died aged 34 in 1967 when her Buick Electra 225 ploughed into the back of a tractor-trailer. This led to a change in American law requiring all trailers to be fitted with a metal underside guard, known to this day as a Mansfield bar.)

But let's return for the last time to the Hogarth Roundabout. You can circumambulate the site in a quarter of an hour or so, savouring the yeasty belch of the brewery. You'll eventually come to a low gate on your left, set between iron railings leading to a public courtyard, at the river end of which stands an elegant three-story Georgian house. On a wall to the left is a small plaque marking the site where Vanity Fair's heroine Becky Sharpe flings her improving book - a copy of Dr Johnson's Dictionary - out of her carriage window and into the garden as she leaves. The constant roar and the toxic emissions aside, this is a serene Georgian enclave, set improbably amid the continuous racket of eastbound traffic humping over the flyover, and westbound traffic grinding and growling underneath. It's a place like no other. Nearby is Hogarth's house, his 'Little Country Box', a museum since 1909. In the garden a 300-year-old mulberry tree from which Jane, his wife, made mulberry tarts for  local children. 

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