Posts Tagged ‘Guiding’

Briggs

September 4, 2016

I am not a big fan of getting my hair cut and since my son left school I’ve been scratching around for somewhere to go since I no longer have the occasion to go to J. Moriyama‘s neck of the woods on a regular basis.

Briggs, in a little alley between Jermyn Street and St. James’s Square, is a place I have been going past on a regular basis for several years now as it’s on my favourite route to the library from Piccadilly Circus. It’s a little booth of a place tucked away and I’d often see its barber chopping hair or watching the world go by if he was between customers.

With friends I would speculate as to whether it really was a barbers given its unpromising, indeed improbable, location or whether it was rather some kind of front. A front for a shadowy department of M15 perhaps where those in the service would tap their nose before being ushered through to a shabby beige Le Carré interior that had somehow survived spending reviews, smoking bans and digitisation.

Well, this week I decided to take the plunge and find out for myself. The truth turned out to be no less romantic and a whole lot more interesting. Briggs in fact is run by Fylaktis Philippou, a Cypriot of advanced years (92 of them) who came to London in 1949 as one of the first 3,000 or so Cypriots whose community has now expanded to over 300,000. Mr Philippou (or Phil to his regulars I’m informed, I don’t think I yet qualify) hasn’t done a bad job of helping out on that score as he told me that he has four great-grandchildren (as well as the intervening descendants of course), all growing up in London.

Briggs was the owner of the shop when Mr Philippou came to London and the shop has been on its present site since 1959. To the inexpert eye (i.e. mine) it looks that it has largely been untouched since then, other than the addition of various dignitaries and family that adorn the walls. It really is a historic interior in the right sense of the word in that it is both a record of a certain era but also an organic space that remains useful for the purpose for which it was created. People often describe such a space as being like a film set but of course it’s not. It’s lived in, inhabited by real people.

The technology is historic too. Rather than electric clippers there’s some hand powered shears for your short back and sides, and a bit of scissor work to straighten up your thatch. Mr Philippou doesn’t keep you hanging around so if you choose to visit (and I urge you to) make the most of the ten minutes or so of conversation that you’ll have in return for your twenty quid. There are few people of my acquaintance who have such a long experience of the changing shape of London in the twentieth century at first hand.

It was a good lesson in the art of guiding in that if you want to find out about somewhere you can do all the research in the world but nothing beats walking into a place and asking somebody about it. I’ll be back for more.

Two Parisian modernist landmarks

October 28, 2015
Front elevation of the Maison de Verre

Front elevation of the Maison de Verre

I was very lucky recently to be taken on a guided tour of a hidden away modernist gem in the back streets of Paris. The Maison de Verre was designed by Pierre Chareau and his collaborators for the gynaecologist Dr. John Dalsace to act as both family residence and practice centre. The house is privately owned but opened up to a limited number of architecture enthusiasts for guided tours of the public spaces and garden.

The house owes its name to the fact that its walls, front and rear, are constructed almost entirely of glass bricks. Such a design is the supreme expression of a hygienic architecture that had its origins in nineteenth century theories about the importance of light and air circulation to counter the threat of disease in the home or clinic. If you’re wondering how anyone could maintain any privacy in such conditions Chareau, who had experience in  theatre design, installed projectors that flood the front and rear of the house with light so that the movements of the residents are indistinguishable to an external observer.

Pierre Chareau and his collaborators stake their claim

Pierre Chareau and his collaborators stake their claim

Family areas (understandably) are off limits on the tour, which is a shame as one of the wonders of the building is its ingenious use of sliding panels, curtains and interlinking architectural features to allow the interior of the house to be adapted for use as consulting rooms, salon or domestic residence as the occasion demands. I’m still curious as to how such imaginative use of space could be applied in a 1920s kitchen or bathroom on a miniature scale.

Maison de Verre from the garden

Maison de Verre from the garden. There’s an interesting story behind the absence of glass brick on  the top floor.

Our guide emphasised that while the house may look like a draft for of a 1920s house of the future it was in fact very much grounded in existing practice; especially in using techniques and materials appropriated from railway carriages, cruise liners, aircraft and theatres. The Maison de Verre has many similar features to the houses of Le Corbusier but rather than being a cerebral, theory-led project along Corbusian lines its emergence was rather more of a bricolage of trial and error that I think gives it a more homespun feel than the (very few) Le Corbusier projects that I’ve seen.

The house is beautiful and if you have a chance to visit, take it.

While in Paris I also took the time to visit another modernist, or quasi-modernist, project in which I’m interested as an academic. The Monument Frantz Reichel, which stands beside the Stade Jean Bouin in the west of Paris, was erected to commemorate a sportsman-journalist who died at his desk at Le Figaro in 1932. It was sculpted by Alexandre Maspoli (who was also a wrestling champion in his youth!) and designed by the modernist architect Tony Garnier, a contemporary of Chareau.

Monument Frantz Reichel in its pomp

Monument Frantz Reichel in its pomp

Reichel is something of a forgotten man in French sport – the closest figure I can compare him to in England is CB Fry, the great cricketer of the early twentieth century. Reichel, like Fry, was not just an all round sportsman. He was also an intellectual who made his living from journalism who saw sport as being central to the development of society.

Reichel competed at rugby, the 400m and the 110m hurdles at the Olympic Games in 1896 and 1900 and was also Boxing Heavyweight Champion of France in 1904. All the while he produced enormous amounts of journalism, as well as being a central figure in French and world sports administration right up to his sudden death of a heart attack. His Monument bears the simple legend, ‘Le Sport Français’. It is as if at his death he somehow embodied sport in France.

Of course the idea that someone like Reichel (or Fry for that matter), an upper-class, white man could embody something as diverse in participation as sport is something that has been broken down over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries as people of different genders, ethnicities and physical and mental abilities have seen their participation and excellence at sport celebrated.

However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate the career of someone like Reichel, especially in the week that the final of the Rugby Union World Cup is to be played. Reichel really was the driving force behind French rugby as both participant and organiser for some twenty years before the First World War. And he was forward looking for his time. My thesis touches on how Reichel encouraged multi-racial rugby in the 1900s, with the French team that played South Africa in January 1907 being captained by Georges Jérome, a grandson of slaves.

The history of Reichel’s memorial is a chequered one – melted down during the Occupation it was shifted to make way for the Périphérique in the 60s and now stands forlornly in a shabby corner of a barren traffic intersection. The weather staining to the stone is natural, the graffiti is not.

Shabby Monument Frantz Reichel

Shabby Monument Frantz Reichel

With the Parc des Prince just a stone’s throw away I wonder who is responsible for the neglect of this formidable statue. I’m currently finishing a paper on the history of the statue for a conference next month and hope to complete an article on Reichel by the end of the year, if anyone out there knows more information about him or his statue please get in touch.

On Faversham

July 29, 2015

Church and beer. These are the things I now associate with Faversham, a place I’d never particularly thought about before a friend took me there to mark his moving from Kent back to north London. To my regret the only acquaintance I made with the church during our visit was this glimpse up a side-street as we walked down the road to make our appointment for a brewery tour at Shepherd Neame.

St Mary of Charity with brewery chimney in the foreground.

St Mary of Charity with brewery chimney in the foreground.

So to satisfy my predilection for churches (and St. Mary’s looks a stunner*) I’ll have to return, something I’d like to do very soon.

But the subject of the day (and of this blog) was beer not god. The photograph is a metaphor for the way that beer still dominates Faversham even if the range of breweries in the town had declined in the twentieth century from several to just one. The chimney belongs I think to the now defunct Rigden’s Brewery and is located opposite the entrance to Shepherd Neame’s still thriving site.

I’m always slightly wary of going on guided tours, since I find it difficult to switch off my critical faculties as a fellow pro guide and just listen to the stuff. Fortunately our guide on this occasion proved to be very engaging and competent on the technical side of things, even if the use of headphones was a bit of an irritant.

I’ve always avoided using headphones with a group, where the guide has a microphone and the group have the commentary direct into their ears. It feels like you’re breaking down the solidarity of the tour party by making it into a one to one relationship. On the receiving end it makes it more difficult to tune your brain out of what the guide is saying and allow their commentary to mingle with your own thoughts, your visual impressions and the sounds of the environment that you’re in. But of course a brewery is first and foremost a factory, and an often noisy one at that.

The tour, rightly, focused on the historic aspects of the brewery (‘England’s Oldest Brewer’), the process of making beer and Shepherd Neame’s position in the modern market. I was less enamoured of the World War Two-themed marketing, and the stories associated with it, which seemed less in tune with a forward-thinking operation.

What struck me, and has struck me on similar tours in the past in Meaux (for Brie cheese) and Bushmill’s (for Irish whiskey) is that the more fascinating aspect is the way that these places operate as factories and the architecture associated with that. The marketing of the products themselves often depends on their evocation of an imagined past that ties the commodity to a nostalgia for locality or ingredient. The waters of the river in Bushmill’s, the milk of the cows in Meaux and Kentish hops in Faversham.

Inside a cathedral of beer at Shepherd Neame

Inside a cathedral of beer at Shepherd Neame

More interesting to me is the industrial plant now required to produce a ‘traditional’ product for a mass market. These great tanks for fermenting the beer have an honest grandeur that requires no dressing up as an underdog taking on the fizzy pop brigade of Heineken and their like. The thriving microbrew scene in Kent is where it’s at for that narrative. I could have looked at the crusty texture of the tanks for a lot longer.

Lost Joy Division album cover

Lost Joy Division album cover

But the thought of all that beer did make me thirsty. And the pubs of Faversham were calling. I’ll return for the church soon.

Pevsner describes a church much buggered about with over the years since its founding in the 14th Century. The steeple is compared favourably with that of St Dunstan-in-the-East in the City of London as being an improvement on Wren’s prototype. I beg to differ. It also promises mediaeval wall paintings, things I’ve been mildly obsessed with since reading J. L. Carr’s, A Month in the Country, a must-read book for those who wish to understand a certain kind of Englishness, and certainly my favourite book dealing with the First World War.

Faversham feels very English.

John Newman, The Buildings of England: North East and East Kent (Penguin, 1969), pp. 300-309

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country. I recommend the Penguin Classics edition of 2000 which has an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald, although one really ought to get it direct from Carr’s own Quince Tree Press. The process will give you a flavour of the man.

On the less visited things of Paris

June 22, 2015

No, it's not la Sainte Chappelle

No, it’s not la Sainte Chappelle

Having been in Paris for a week, for pleasure with a tiny bit of research thrown in (mostly involving tracking down a statue of a feller that I want to write about (I’ll probably do something about him in a future post too when I’ve actually done some of the work)), this post is to talk about places in and around Paris that merit more attention from the curious tourist. Leave the Tour Eiffel to the bus parties and the pickpockets; the Champs to the consumers and the cars; the Sacre Coeur (the most chillingly sterile blot on any landscape) to the Amelieites.

My mission on this trip was to go to places to which I’d never been before – places that might appear in guide books but to which very few people actually go. Places that offer an alternative view of Paris, open up new ideas and resonances, or in the case of the Fondation are brand new. This was also the case with bars and restaurants, and if you want to ask for recommendations (or places to avoid) consult this GoogleMap and get in touch. This post is about things to do rather than things to eat and drink.

We did go to one regular, the Musée D’Orsay, but then it was worth breaking the rules to see this cat …

Bonnard cat

Bonnard cat. Psychologically accurate if anatomically eccentric.

I’ve limited it to five places, we visited others but these are the ones that stood out on the trip and that I think may be readily appreciated by a wide range of thinking people.

1. Fondation Louis Vuitton

FLV by FG

FLV by FG

Ok, so let’s start with the big beast. It’s not exactly obscure, having been the subject of a furious amount of media promotion since it opened. But it is quite new so many people will not have been and may be open to some tips about visiting.

The current exhibition, Les clefs d’un passion, was so good that I actually went to the Fondation twice in the week – once on my own and then once again with family. It’s the perfect exhibition in that it combines what amounts to a greatest hits of the twentieth century (Monet Water Lilies, two of them side by side, 7 or 8 Mondrians that give an overview of his career, first class Picassos, Munch Scream, Kandinsky and on and on) with a smattering of works of equally high quality from less well known artists. With our Finnish family connections the best of these was a sequence of four Lake Keitele canvases by Gallen-Kallela displayed along one wall, side by side. Extraordinary and worth missing the D’Orsay, Beaubourg or any other gallery in Paris to go and see if you’re only there for a weekend.

And how could I forget toe toon Delaunay’s colossal canvas of the Cardiff rugby team! The painting I’ve only ever seen in reproduction before but which encapsulates the ideas behind my writing on the relationship between art, modernity and sport in Britain and France.

The only things in there I wouldn’t have wanted to own were the Picabias. Execrable late period kitsch garbage. Oh well, easily forgotten. I can’t recommend the exhibition enough. There’s a also an exhibition of contemporary art that I wandered past but wasn’t engaged by … apart from Gilbert and George.*

The building itself is also a work of art (and don’t they keep banging on about it) by Frank Gehry. I’d never been to a Gehry building before and was a bit sceptical about his fantastical shapes – they have a certain ‘look at me! Look At Me!! LOOK AT ME!!!’ quality to them when seen on a page that is rather off-putting. This one being stuck in the wastes of the Bois de Boulogne means that it doesn’t really have anything to clash with around it and so works as a sculptural form in a open space. Inside the building is functional, airy and rather delightful – the Olaf Eliasson works really well with Gehry’s use of water.

Fondation Louis Vuitton

Fondation Louis Vuitton

The galleries too are perfect for viewing the art and as the price to get in is fairly steep it wasn’t too rammed on either of the occasions that I went; it wasn’t necessary to queue to get a ticket if you hadn’t paid in advance.

The Museum is a bit of a schlep if you’re going to walk it through the park but there is a shuttle bus for €1 from Nation that looks well worth using. I schlepped because that’s what I do. Entry also includes a visit to the Jardin d’Acclimation, which I didn’t take advantage of but has several eateries if you don’t fancy the pretentious looking café in the Fondation.

I’m not sure if it’d be worth making a detour for if they didn’t have such a world class exhib going on but while it is there it’s worth travelling to Paris just to see it.

2. Meaux

Bishop's gaff, Meaux

Bishop’s gaff, Meaux

Meaux was a serendipitous error. We had been planning to go to Champagne but a combination of holiday laziness, a byzantine automatic ticket machine (‘Do you have a war veterans’ discount?’) and extortionate prices for an off-the-cuff TGV ticket meant that we scoured the Gare de L’Est destinations board for other fare. Meaux (at a bargain €40 return for a party of three) seemed ideal for our purposes.

Twenty minutes later we’d left the tourists behind and were in a mid-sized provincial French town with a beautiful mediaeval core. Gothic Cathedral, Bishops Palace, art museum, local museum, smattering of shops and restaurants and all a 5 minute walk from the station. The architecture of the Cathedral and its complex is stunning, and in the summer they have outdoor concerts and theatre in the evening. But there’s more to Meaux than that.

Both museums being shut the guy at the Tourist Office told us to head to the fromagerie to see how Brie is made. We’d hit the motherlode! We’d been planning on a champagne tour but instead we had a cheese feast. Forty minutes tootle round followed by a dégustation of Brie de Meaux (mild) and Brie de Melun (spicy), washed down with some local cider (not authentic but it was free so I wasn’t complaining).

Don't take a wrong turn

Don’t take a wrong turn

Don’t let the sign put you off … it was charming. Outside the fromagerie there’s a curious cemetery with many WW1 graves from all sides of the conflict – British, Belgian, French, German, Moslem, Jewish, Christian. A very moving (and unexpected) thing until we remembered that the Battle of the Marne finished right here in Meaux (they have a museum about that but that was shut too). So Meaux – perfect for a day out of relaxation, thoughtfulness and face-stuffing and I didn’t speak English the whole time I was there.**

3. Longchamps

Longchamps

Longchamps

One of the biggest drawbacks of living in north London is that there isn’t a racecourse that doesn’t take you half a day to get to. I’ve been to Folkestone, Kempton, Sandown, Newmarket and Lingfield, they all involve multiple changes of train or a car journey. And who wants to drive to the races? In Paris there are two courses in the same park!! That’s a superior civilisation. Go to the Bois, we did Auteuil and Longchamps in three days. Of the two Longchamps was my favourite.

The place is set up for the Arc. As you can see from the photo there are colossal, elegant stands geared up for five figure crowds but to go there mid-week lunchtime … well, that’s a bigger treat for the holidaymaker. Because at that time you only see people who are there for the racing – either the wealthy owners, pros (jockeys, trainers, members of the press) and neer-do-wells who know that slinking off to the races when everyone else is working is some form of heaven.

It’s five euros in and for that you get eight races of very good quality. You can walk there if you’re feeling energetic or get the bus with your fellow punters from Porte Maillot. Beer is warm and out of a can but you really shouldn’t be here for the booze (in fact we should have taken our own, everyone else seemed to) … you’re here for character and atmosphere. The atmosphere is smells … horsey smells and grass, faces in the almost exclusively French crowd of ravaged old gamblers, sharp-looking young gamblers, industrially renovated-ageing wealthy old bags and roués, with the odd middle-aged couple having a picnic lunch. Trackside the sound of six horses striving, bloodbursting and winninglosing. The ritual round of newspaper, paddock, Tote (no on course bookies in Paris, alas), track and win/lose is hypnotic until you’ve won enough or you’ve had enough losses.

And all the time Degas in mind.***

Auteuil races ... note the Tour Eiffel in the background - the view from the top of the grandstand is stunning.

Auteuil races … note the Tour Eiffel in the background – the view from the top of the grandstand is stunning.

4. The Commando Museum

Musée Nissim Camondo

Musée Nissim Camondo

Well, not really, that’s in Portsmouth … this is the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Just off Parc Monceau in a very expensive part of Paris and barely a soul in there when I visited. For Downton fans there’s plenty of kitchen-scullery stuff to gawp at. The art is not really to my taste (although they do have a lot of prints of Chardin’s works) but again this place is about atmosphere and backstory. The atmosphere of a perfectly preserved mansion straight out of A la Recherche. And the backstory of a Jewish family raised to the cream of Parisian society by hard work and making the right connections laced with much subsequent tragedy that it’s best left for the individual to come to in their own time.

5. Maison de la Radio France

Maison de la Radio France

Maison de la Radio France

I had a ticket to see Jean-Bernard Pommier for my final evening in Paris but he cancelled. No in fact he didn’t cancel he postponed the concert by two days, which is a curious thing to do.**** But undeterred I hunted out another concert going on that evening at M de la RF, which came in at 40 euros less expensive.

First, the building is a treat. Is this foyer out of a Eurothriller from the late 60s? Possibly starring David Hemmings and Romy Schneider … it’s a stunner anyway and not a bad place to while away the time waiting for the doors to open. It would have been substantially improved by having a bar mind but you can’t have everything.

Radio France. Exhortations over the PA to save the coughing for later were sadly ineffective.

Radio France. Exhortations over the PA to save the coughing for later were sadly ineffective.

The auditorium perfect and then on with the show. It’s nice to know that some things transcend cultures (i.e. inappropriately timed coughing fits and fidgety kids) but this was a very French evening despite the first work being a string quartet by George Onslow. I’d assumed he must be some contemporary Brit or Yank but no, he’s from the Romantic period (‘the French Beethoven’) the son of an exiled English aristo and an Auvergnat inheritrix who grew up in France and despite being renowned in his own life-time has now fallen into obscurity.

The Quatuor Danel are trying to rescue him from musical oblivion. I sympathise with their aims but fear that he’s too anodyne compared to contemporaries Schubert and Beethoven. Sometimes there’s a reason people stay out of fashion. Just ask Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. The real meat came afterwards with a Fauré piano quintet that was hot and dreamy in a way that made my head pound, my soul sing joy and my heart ache.

And who doesn’t want that? All of these places can deliver it.

* I once did a guided tour of Spitalfields that coincided with the G&G retrospective at Tate Modern. Outside their former house I gave a 5 to 10 minute take on their origins, career and current position in the market to a group of largely disinterested teenagers and one grinning group leader. Grinning because unknown to me Gilbert and George had been posing side by side behind me throughout pretty much the whole talk. When I turned to go to the next stop they silently turned round too and strolled off. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole.

** Best of all was a motor-mouthed sports shop salesman in Star Momo Sport, a charming and determined individual who had covered over all the ‘Inter Sport’ logos with a ‘Momo’ label on his Marseille shirts because he didn’t wish to give publicity to a rival. Alan Sugar would approve.

*** That’s ‘Duh-ga’, not ‘Day-gah’. Major irritant.

**** In his publicity he’s claimed to be the most renowned French pianist outside of France. I’d like to know what François-Frédéric Guy, Pascal Rogé, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Anne Queffelec, Alexandre Tharaud (I could go on) think about that. Or if he’s actually been out of France to ask anyone.

On coachwork

May 25, 2015

IMG_2949

Hyde Park, early evening at the beginning of the tour.

This week I was taught a very good lesson by a Dutch coach driver. Coachwork – providing a commentary on a bus tour (or panos as they’re more commonly known in the trade) – is not my favourite part of guiding. Or at least that’s what I always, rather snobbishly, say. Compared to walking tours, where you can do interesting research and put together a considered narrative through the streets, a coach tour is a repetitious bunfight with the content constantly being switched from one topic to another to suit the buildings and landmarks that one is driving past.

The route rarely varies (Westminster, a bit of Southwark/Lambeth and the City of London, occasionally Docklands and the Olympic Park – I rarely go out of town) and thus your patter tends to have a core content of royals, wars, shops and celebrities with the amount you can devote to a particular anecdote dependent on the stickiness of the traffic. Due to the constant gridlock around Knightsbridge I know far too much about Harrod’s (a place I’ve only visited once (once is enough, isn’t it?)). For example that the Shakhtar Donetsk football team were refused entry for wearing shell suits. I tell this anecdote to help me to feel warmer about the place. It doesn’t work.

So, it’s with a rather heavy heart that I prep for the coach. However, there are certain aspects of coachwork that I do enjoy, chief among them the feeling of working in a team. This week’s driver, a Dutchman, introduced himself as Rien, ‘Like the French for nothing’. ‘But you’re everything to me this evening,’ I jokingly said.

There was an element of truth lying behind the gag – the guide depends on the driver to get the coach round safely, to slow down when going past the major TVPs (Top Visual Priorities – more guiding lingo), and sometimes to calm down the rabble at the back. Similarly, the driver relies on the guide – to know the route, to give clear directions, and to entertain the clients (or at least to avoid making them positively hostile).

My prep for the coach tour (because I avoid them it means when I do do them I have to prep a lot more than I would for something that I do regularly, like a Westminster walk) was stressing me because I have two writing deadlines at the moment. The nearest one isn’t a definite deadline, it’s more of a self-imposed deadline for a chapter in a book on South African cricket. This will be volume two of a work that I’m collaborating on with a group of authors for UNISA Press. (Volume 1 is here.) And because it’s for people who have become good friends I care very much that I do a good job. Stress and tension in the house.

I think it’s quite common for academics to feel that they have too much on their plate – it was certainly a feeling I had while writing my thesis and trying to combine that with working, and that returned while teaching at Luton and trying to write papers and articles. Having more than one project on the go can feel overwhelming and in trying to do everything at once one often finds that one advances very little on any front.

What does this have to do with coachwork?

Rien was one of the best drivers I’ve worked with. While I was prattling on about the Duke of Wellington at Hyde Park Corner I hadn’t registered that Rien was in the lane to head down the Mall rather than round the back of Buckingham Palace until it was nearly too late. The Mall costs for coaches so it is to be avoided for the budget conscious group leader. I asked Rien if he could get in the right lane. ‘Yes, no problem,’he said as he gently nudged across two lanes of traffic incurring angry honking horns from angry gesticulating cabbies.

Rien was magisterial in his calm at the wheel (this wasn’t the only time that I had to give him a late nudge in the right direction), and I complimented him on it at the end of the tour. ‘I drive the bus to the end of the day and when I bring the bus home I’m happy. Why be worried along the way if you do a good job?’ Wise words. 

So now I’m thinking of my chapter as a big bus. And it’s my job to get the bus home. Why be worried if along the way I do a good job?

Looking at the photos on my phone after the job I thought how lucky I am to do coachwork. The first was of Hyde Park where I was waiting for the coach to arrive. Peace, joggers, grass and trees in the soft evening light. And the next was after being dropped off at Lambeth, the Palace of Westminster in the last glow of the sun. Coachwork isn’t so bad.

Sunset and the Palace of Westminster at the end of the tour.

Sunset and the Palace of Westminster at the end of the tour.

On Luton

May 6, 2015

‘Luton, with over 200,000 inhabitants, is by far the largest town in Bedfordshire, but it is a town of very little architectural interest.’*

Such is Pevsner’s damning opening line on Luton. And I must admit that when I began as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire last October it wasn’t in anticipation of a pleasurable aesthetic experience. Yet this is what it turned out to be.

I suspected Pevsner of being unnecessarily pessimistic about Luton the second I walked past St. Mary’s church on my way to the interview for the job. I’m not much of a church hound but I do recognise excellence when I see it. I made a mental note that if I got the job and saw out my year I would try and get into the church sometime and have a good rootle around.

St Mary's, Luton

St Mary’s, Luton

Over the course of the academic year I walked past St. Mary’s in sun, rain, snow and hail, usually bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and fretting about what I was going to do with the students that day. Arriving in Luton from the gleaming terminal at St. Pancras was a dispiritingly Pevsnerian experience. The renovation of Luton station (a slunking drabness of concrete, brick and corroded metal whose single decorative feature, a Moderne-ish clock, posseses no hands) seems to be very low on Network Rail’s list of things-to-do. And the route to the University from the station either takes one through bypass hell or, even more horrifically, The Mall – an example of Arndale atrocity that even the most stubborn member of the 20th Century Society would find it difficult to defend.

Hat press in foreground, 1930s railway station in the distance overshadowed by a hulking car park. I guess that shows you the priorities of the home of Vauxhall Motors.

Hat press in foreground, 1930s railway station in the distance overshadowed by a hulking car park. I guess that shows you the priorities of the home of Vauxhall Motors.

But then, but then, a descent from the shopping centre to ground level (taking the stairs, the escalator (the Darren Anderton of escalators) invariably being ‘under repair’), a stroll across the road and there lay St. Mary’s lounging defiantly in its own circle of green. So the church was always a welcome sight on the way into work. Even with its bunkerish parish centre attached to the east end it stands out as a piece of civility in a thoroughly feral stretch of the urban landscape.

As does the University, but that’s for another post.

View to the East End of St Mary's

View to the East End of St Mary’s

I’d emailed the church to ask if I could take a look around since it was usually shut on my teaching day. They agreed and on the last day of term I was allowed to wander around the church on my own. It is a gem.It is an outstanding example of the parish church of a wealthy mediaeval town. Its architecture possesses both modest grandeur and quirky byways. Grandeur in the broad wooden roof and gothic arches of the crossing. Quirkiness in its side chapels and piscinas (yeah, I had to look it up too).

Medieval stairway reminiscent of Henry V's chapel at the Abbey with restored memorials inlaid in the wall and a glimpse of the roof.

Medieval stairway reminiscent of Henry V’s chapel at the Abbey with restored memorials inlaid in the wall and a glimpse of the roof.

The memorials tell a very local story of Luton and its inhabitants that links into a national narrative stretching back to the 14th Century. Those who are interested in the Wars of the Roses (never my favourite part of giving a tour of the Tower I have to admit) will be curious about the Wenlock Memorial.

The Wenlock Memorial. Sadly, his helmet and gauntlets were not on display.

The Wenlock Memorial. Sadly, his helmet and gauntlets were not on display.

I was struck by a memorial whose name rang a bell with work that I’ve done on the history of South Africa, that to Alexander Pigott-Wernher. I knew the name Wernher from the firm of Wernher, Beit & Co., who were big players in the South African mining industry in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. My own work has looked in a small way at the relationship between the mining industry and the development of sport in South Africa in the years running up to the Great War and so I’d only read about Julius Wernher as part of the background to the man I was more interested in, Abe Bailey.**

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I’d assumed that Wernher, like many of the Randlords, was Jewish, so I found it curious that his son, who died on the Somme in 1916, should have a memorial in an Anglican church. In fact Wernher was brought up a Lutheran in Germany and in 1870 had fought in the German army during the Franco-Prussian War. After the war he went into business and had come to the Rand via spells in Paris and London. While his partner, Alfred Beit (who was Jewish), was a dealmaker and visionary empire builder on the Rhodesian model, Wernher was the steady numbers man who ensured that their company had the liquidity to cover Beit’s grand schemes for controlling the market first in diamonds in Kimberley and then in gold on Witwatersrand. Like many of his fellow Randlords Wernher invested his fabulous wealth in property in England, buying a mansion on Piccadilly and the country estate of Luton Hoo (now a luxury hotel) in Bedfordshire – hence the connection with St. Mary’s.

Such a career demonstrates how fluid national identity was in the era of Edwardian high imperialism. The father is a middle-class Prussian soldier when young, yet through the transformative power of capital and class his son dies fighting his father’s nation of birth as an Old Etonian officer in the Welsh Guards. In Luton, the home of the EDL, the story of the Wernhers’ connection to the town is a strong reminder of the flexibility of Englishness and its ability to be an inclusive identity rather than one that rejects newcomers.

I spent a year teaching the history of sport at Luton and one of the commonest discussions we would have as a class was about the tension between globalisation and nationalism in sport. I see the same tension cropping up in the debates about the future of the country during the election campaign, especially with the main parties under pressure from the nationalists of Scotland and UKIP. And what I want the mainstream parties to make a stronger case for is a more inclusive sense of nationality that is open to the hyphenated identities of Scottish-British, Polish-English and English-European. And in this I think Ed Miliband has shown more leadership than David Cameron in rejecting outright a referendum on withdrawal from the European Union. Confident of our national identity we have nothing to fear from pooling sovereignty with other nations. I only wish he’d argue more confidently against the exclusionary politics of the SNP and emphasise more the common values that give strength to our nation both in our own eyes and that of the rest of the world.

*Charles O’Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough (Yale University Press, 2014), p. 211

** If you’re interested in the history of the development of the Rand and the extraordinary range of characters involved in the development of the mining industry I heartily recommend Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s book on the Randlords as an introduction. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Randlords (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1985)


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