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July 29 2012

Ten things I miss about the 20th century | Ian Martin

Smoke everywhere, lovely great lumps of concrete and chirpy bus conductors – just some of the things I liked about the good old days

1. Vocalised cheerfulness I'm not saying people were happier in the 20th century; they weren't. There was a lot to contend with: war, TB, no bass end on record players etc. But there was more public cheerfulness. People would sing out loud just walking down the street. Try doing that now and see if passersby make eye contact. Remember bus conductors? Chirpiness was a required skill then for a Routemaster crew. Passengers were often treated to a "soundclash" – the conductor perhaps whistling the latest Tommy Steele, the driver loudly crooning something upbeat by Edmundo Ros. It was a bit like nowadays when you get teenagers at different ends of the bus playing syncopated misogyny on their phones, only happy instead of angry.

2. Coal Yeah, I know it killed half of us, but I miss the smell of coal smoke. It used to be everywhere, belching out of trains and chimneys, atomised, inhaled. Most people were addicted to cigarettes too. Everyone died smokey bacon flavour. Buildings were agreeably shrouded in grime. Fog was thick, like a sodium-yellow blanket. Of course we older people are kicking ourselves that we didn't put some soot away for the future. Now it goes for up to £3,000 a scuttleful and is keenly sought after by billionaires, who dress up like the cast of Mad Men and snort it through 10 bob notes. Sooty the hand puppet, he was from a more innocent age too.

3. Proper weather The climate's been broken for years (see "Coal" above, soz) but it can't be fixed because NOBODY DOES REPAIRS ANY MORE.

4. Having a pint with a racist Maybe it's the invisibility of old people, but I rarely "fall into conversation" with morons in the pub these days. It's what happened in the golden age before we had mobiles to check. There'd be a neutral remark about the weather and before you knew it some sullen clump of sideboards and tash opposite would be blaming "them" for his early black-and-white version of Broken Britain. Then you'd have an argument while you drank your pints and it seemed quite important to engage and challenge. Today, if anyone says anything racist the protocol is to smile, pretend to go to the toilet, tweet "Oh my God, there's a totally racist dude in this pub", then covertly film them and hope they say something YouTubeable.

5. Women's liberation So much clearer then: men are shit, we've ruined everything, stand aside, woman's right to choose, equal pay, non-patriarchal parenting, loose clothes. Now feminism's tribalised it's much more confusing. Julie Bindel's lesbo resistance or Caitlin Moran's cock-based irony? Both, obviously. But I miss the days of free thinking and reparations, when New Men did all the cooking and were more than happy to be sexual playthings, although to be honest my mind's wandering a bit now.

6. The majesty of concrete Lovely, egalitarian, optimistic great lumps of concrete, eg the Hayward Gallery, were going up on the South Bank at about the time the Kinks released Waterloo Sunset. We were in paradise.

7. Haughty television Never mind Starkey, Schama and all the other clever dicks with their blousons and gesticulating on battlements and meticulous reconstructed scenes because apparently we can't be trusted to use our own bloody imaginations any more. Before colour telly, AJP Taylor could talk into a camera for an hour armed only with an immaculate brain, a glass of water and 10 Woodbine.

8. Working-class MPs We used to have loads of them. Working miners became union reps, discovered a natural gift for turning rage into oratory and were duly elected as parliamentary tribunes for working people. Dennis Skinner's still there like a pissed uncle at a funeral, but who remembers Coventry's Dave Nellist? When he was an MP in the 80s he insisted on taking only the average wage of skilled workers in his constituency. The rest he gave back to Labour, who in return expelled him for being too militant and then waited gormlesssly for Neil "The Welsh Mussolini" Kinnock to become prime minister. Today our House of Commons is just the Members' Pavilion at Lord's without the hats.

9. Counter culture These days it's all "meta" or "pop-up" and I'm not entirely sure what they are. Oppositional thinking's too sophisticated now. It was all much simpler when culture had three gears only and a puncture repair kit in the saddlebag. Ah, Spam sandwiches, orange squash, purple hearts … sorry, mind's gone again.

10. Non-monetised public space The internet saw the last century out and this one in. Early on there was great excitement about "virtual reality" yet who could have foreseen REALITY TURNING INTO THE INTERNET? A journey through London in 2012 is like navigating your way from one JavaScript nightmare to another in the days before ad blockers. Every available square inch of public space, every cubic foot of public air now has to be jizzed over by flickering ads and corporate branding. And looming above it all the grotesque Shard, our capital's latest and most disgusting lump of privatised skyline. Capitalism giving us a scaly, taloned middle finger. What next – sponsored clouds? Toll pavements? Paywalled churches? Sure, it sounds ridiculous but you mark my words, soon they'll be charging us to get into St Paul's Cathedral. Oh.

Charlie Brooker is away.


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July 28 2012

Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930-80 – review

Tate Britain, London

Another London is a show of black-and-white photographs of the host city that can only have been conceived with Olympic visitors in mind. This is a tourist guide to London at its most familiar and nostalgic. It is Big Ben and the Tower of London, bobbies and red buses, pearly kings, cockney sparrows, roll out the barrel and change the guard, all viewed through a haze of smog so unvarying that it makes even the work of such disparate artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt look speciously similar.

The photographs all come from the collection of Cartier-Bresson's brother-in-law, Eric Franck, who has given more than a thousand pictures to Tate, doubling its holdings. Some of these are classics, including Irving Penn's turbaned cleaning ladies with their battered buckets and their shining resolve, and Lartigue's portrait of his wife, Bibi, walking towards the camera as the street shears away behind her looking remarkably like 19th-century Paris.

Other images are by less well-known names, such as the Viennese photographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who clambered up the dome of St Paul's to photograph the bombed-out streets, or Leonard Freed who memorialised the Hassidic communities of north London in the 70s. But all the works are by international photographers, looking in from the outside, which may be why so many of these scenes turn out to be proverbial: tea at a Lyons Corner House, City gents in bowler hats, street urchins playing in the East End terraces and that most unchanging of events, the changing of the guard.

Sometimes, the image has a distinctive sensibility, especially among the photographers of central and eastern Europe with their dramatic tonal contrasts and their fragmented compositions. Suschitzky took a bewildering photograph of figures on a merry-go-round hurtling into white space that fills one with excitable dread.

But one senses that some of these photographers had arrived in search of the Blitz spirit, the class system and the stiff upper lip and couldn't resist the sight of a cockle-seller or a schoolboy in a top hat. They photographed the general more than the particular: the fishmongers at Billingsgate, the Norland nannies forging across Hyde Park with their Silver Cross prams, the working-class orators of Speakers' Corner, preferably with a British bulldog in sight.

Black-and-white photography, of course, has the look of documentary truth; the historic record. It is apt to depict the present as if it were already the past. But even so, there are startling anachronisms here. Victorian Londoners as late as the 1920s and Eliza Doolittle, as it seems, still selling flowers in her long black clothes in the 1930s.

For me, the most remarkable photograph in this show is by Robert Frank: a sharp perspective of a London terrace in dank gloom, a motionless street cleaner framed in the window of a waiting hearse. A child darts past, her little body captured in midair, as if running away from death, or perhaps from this dark and narrow life.

It is never a sunny day in these photographs. Nor does London look like the immense and scattered metropolis it is. This is partly to do with the fact that some of these photographers were on assignment photographing the coronation of George VI, or VE Day, or the wedding of Princess Anne. Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square appear over and over again.

But perhaps London was not an easy subject for foreigners during these decades: visibility was frequently poor in the fog and smog, the geography was too diffuse, maybe the society was too hard to crack. Bill Brandt stands before a Bethnal Green doorstep to take his photograph, Eve Arnold manages to get in among the drying stockings of a steamy shared bathroom. But there is scarcely an interior shot anywhere in this exhibition.

And in the end, colour takes over in a Cultural Olympiad kind of way – the colours of a mixed-race, multi-cultural, international, all-welcoming London. This is as much a cliche of 20th-century photography of the capital as the Queen Mother visiting East End housewives during the Blitz. Individual images may be strong – it could hardly be otherwise given the calibre of the artists – but in general this is a safe and conservative show. Another London it certainly isn't.


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March 29 2012

Street scenes of 19th-century Newcastle – in pictures

A remarkable set of original early glass negatives detailing everyday 19th-century street scenes has been found by Aaron Guy, who works at Newcastle's Mining Institute. Most are from Newcastle, but some in the collection are from other parts of the north-east. The photographer is unknown



Victorian Newcastle brought to life in photographic treasure trove

Newly discovered collection of photographic plates shows meat markets, rag sellers and street scenes from 1880s

When Aaron Guy peered into a forgotten box in an ancient Newcastle building, he could not have guessed the treasures contained inside. The curious photo archivist had stumbled upon a remarkable set of original early glass negatives, detailing everyday street scenes of 19th-century Newcastle.

Meat markets, fairs, rag sellers, small corner shops and larger than life street characters are among the subjects which feature in the high-quality, 300-image collection.

Guy, who works at the city's Mining Institute, was helping to shift old furniture for the Society of Antiquaries when his attention was diverted to the box.

"The society were moving to a smaller building and were passing some of their belongings to other organisations," he said. "I was just being nosy really, peering into boxes, when I happened to spot that one contained some really old glass negatives. I thought they seemed interesting so we asked for permission to bring the plate boxes back to our office to have a proper look."

The work seems to date back at least to 1880 and the cohesion of the images suggests at least a third of them may have been created by a single photographer. His deliberate documentation of working-class life was unusual for the period, perhaps more in tune with the celebrated street photographers who followed in his footsteps almost a century later, in the 1960s and 70s.

The most arresting images are from the Newcastle streets, but the collection also contains work from other parts of the north-east, most recognisably Tynemouth and Lindisfarne.

By 1871 Newcastle industrialist Joseph Swan had devised a method of producing dry photographic plates, which meant there was no immediate need for a darkroom and chemical processing, and made photography more convenient and commercially viable. Within a few years his city factory was the largest and most successful manufacturer of dry plates in the world.

By the 1880s, Newcastle was prosperous and sophisticated. It had a thriving cultural and intellectual scene, with frequent lectures, debates and scientific demonstrations. Yet this photographer chose to point his lens at ordinary people.

"We know very little about where these negatives have come from," Guy said. "They were never catalogued and the society doesn't recall how or when it came by them. We aren't even completely sure whether they are one photographer's archive, or if they were produced by several individuals. Photography would have been a very expensive hobby at that time, but this person was shooting in a very contemporary way.

"Despite the cumbersome equipment he would have been using – a large plate camera, probably on a tripod – I would describe this as observational documentary, almost photojournalistic in style.

"The work doesn't look staged, but if it was then the photographer was doing things very differently from his contemporaries. This work feels less distant and more engaged than other series I have seen.

"It may have been someone with means, or a commercial photographer with quite a distinctive viewpoint, who decided that Joe Bloggs on the street was more interesting to photograph in his spare time than the high society of Newcastle. He was really quite ahead of his time in that respect."

Guy and his colleagues are still scanning the work and researching locations and possible identities of the photographer. They are also keen to find another 15 boxes of plates which were sent by the Society of Antiquaries to other places.

"I was really quite lucky to find this box," he said. "I don't know if someone forgot it or planned to pick it up later. The aim now is to date and catalogue the work, and then to put it out to other organisations in the city and hopefully get it seen, because it really belongs to the people of Newcastle."


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April 12 2011

Exhibition puts women's football on the map - in pictures

Timed to coincide with the launch of the Women's Super League, Moving the Goalposts exhibition charts the rise and fall of women's football



English women's football aims to score again

An exhibition on the history of women's football and the FA's launch of a Women's Super League should help to bring fans back to the game

View pictures of the exhibition here

Lily Parr, born in 1905, had a prodigious appetite for food and Woodbines. But calorie consumption and chain-smoking didn't prevent her from becoming the most celebrated female footballer of hers or any other age.

Parr was a star. Her appearance in the all-conquering Dick, Kerr "ladies" football team from Preston helped to draw a crowd of over 53,000 to Goodison Park, Liverpool, on Boxing Day in 1920. "Another 5,000 were locked out," says Colin Yates, artist, teacher, football coach and organiser of an exhibition in Manchester called Moving the Goalposts: A History of Women's Football in Britain (1881-2011). Yes, 1881. "When I go into schools and talk about the women's game, the boys are derisive and the girls seem to think it's a fairly recent phenomenon," he adds.

Boys and girls made similar assumptions about black players when he first took football-related anti-racist initiatives into schools. He was able to tell them about Arthur Wharton, whose mother came from Ghanaian royalty, and who was playing in goal for Preston North End around the same time that Parr's fame was spreading beyond the boundaries of that Lancashire town.

Phil Vasili co-wrote a play about Wharton with Irvine Welsh and, having three footballing daughters, he was happy to provide the words to go with the pictures and cartoons at the women's football exhibition. That 1881 game was between Scotland and England in Edinburgh, and both teams wore high-heeled boots, he tells us. "Unfortunately, the next match between the teams, in Glasgow, had to be abandoned because of attempts by some of the young men in the 5,000 crowd to get too close to the women players!"

"There was a salacious side to it," Yates confirms. But by the first world war, the women's game was being more appreciated for its skills than its sex appeal. Women were expected to vacate the football fields as well as the factories when the carnage was over as the FA was becoming increasingly uncomfortable about a popular alternative to the men's game. Spurious arguments were put forward about the dangers of competitive sport to women's health and fertility.

The final straw came in 1921 when women's teams played charity matches to raise money for the families of striking miners. FA-registered clubs were promptly banned from allowing women's football on their grounds.

Ninety years on and the FA this week launched a Women's Super League. On its website, the FA proclaims: "To be successful in England, women's football has to emerge from the shadow of the men's game and establish its own identity."

Lily Parr and her team-mates would have been astonished.

• Moving the Goalposts is at the People's History Museum in Manchester until 15 May.


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April 09 2011

Brixton on fire

On 11 April 1981, tension between the police and youths led to Brixton being set aflame. Observer reporter Patrick Bishop recalls how he and photographer Neil Libbert covered a riot that marked a summer of discontent and changed the way that the country was policed

I can still recall, with almost psychedelic clarity, the moment that it started – a brick arcing through the air, the crunch of an imploding police van windscreen and the glitter of flying glass in the afternoon sunshine. Shortly after, Brixton was ablaze as roaming mobs vented years of pent-up anger.

I'd arrived with Neil Libbert that Saturday morning, sent down from the Observer's newsroom, then in St Andrew's Hill, Blackfriars. There had been trouble the night before and the area was awash with policemen and vehicles, all part of Operation Swamp, launched by the Met to show who was boss of the shabby streets. They were watched by groups of sullen youths, most, but not all black, gathered at street corners.

The ingredients for an explosion were there and just after 4.30pm it happened. Neil and I were standing in Atlantic Road, near an off-licence, when two very young-looking cops, dressed in jeans and bomber jackets, grabbed a young black man for no obvious reason and announced, in best Sweeney style: "You're nicked." As Neil snapped away with his Leica, they bundled the young man towards a police Transit van. It was, as Neil remarked later, "an extraordinarily provocative and stupid thing to do".

The watching crowd burst into furious life. Missiles flew, glass shattered and the violence rippled outwards like an underwater earthquake to Railton Road, Acre Lane and Brixton Road. Soon, police vehicles were overturned and torched and fire brigade tenders were pelted with paving stones, bricks and iron bars.

The police seemed surprised by the turn of events. It was some time before riot gear was issued but even then they were repeatedly beaten back by mobs drunk on anarchy and, as the evening wore on, looted liquor. Until late into the night, misrule reigned. Men and women swarmed through smashed shop windows, emerging laden with clothes, radios and televisions. The Windsor Castle pub was an early target. The fire took hold in minutes, bathing the mob in flickering red light as they capered outside, swigging the stolen stock.

The rioters – in the beginning at least – seemed as full of glee as anger and there were several touches of black comedy. At one point, I saw someone climb into the driver's cab of a number 37 bus abandoned in Railton Road. Both decks immediately filled up with rioters. Is it my imagination or did someone ding the bell as it set off towards the phalanx of policemen with only plastic shields to protect them, stretched across the end of the road? I certainly remember the look of stark terror on the officers' faces as it lurched towards them before mercifully rolling to a halt, blocked by an overturned car.

There were hardly any reporters around at the outset and the rioters did not seem bothered by our presence. Later that changed. Shortly after the bus incident, I was shoved against a wall, mauled and kicked, while snarling faces screamed that I was an undercover cop. I was rescued by an older man who checked my press card and sent me on my way.

Deadline was approaching and I had to find somewhere to file. Mobile phones had not yet been invented and the phone boxes were all trashed. Just as I was getting desperate, I came across the offices of some far-left group – the SWP perhaps. I knocked on the door and was admitted. They grudgingly allowed me to use their phone. My dictation was constantly interrupted by a stream of criticisms of the "bourgeois" slant of my report.

To the public-school lefties monitoring my words, it must have seemed that the revolution had finally arrived. It certainly felt to me like the start of something big and, indeed, that summer was long and hot with riots in Handsworth, Southall and Toxteth. But the crisis was averted. The police took a battering that day. Nearly 300 were injured and it was a miracle no officer was killed. When the Scarman report appeared that November, though, it was the police who bore the brunt of the criticism, forcing a strategic change in their relationship with the public that endures to this day.

Looking back, the riot looks like a minor skirmish in the Thatcher revolution, a sideshow compared to the social upheaval of the miners' strike three years later. As for me, the events of the day confirmed a latent taste for danger and excitement. The following year, I sailed as the Observer's correspondent with the task force sent by Thatcher to recapture the Falklands. It was the first of many wars, but the events of that mild spring Saturday have stayed with me, revived forcefully now by Neil Libbert's great pictures.


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June 22 2010

Life on the canals of Coventry and Oxford

Coventry factory worker, Robert Longden took these photographs of working life on the canals in the late 1940s and early 1950s



February 15 2010

Brick Lane versus 'hijab gates' plan

Tower Hamlets council has been accused of trying to force through a controversial sculpture against the wishes of locals

It is synonymous with curry and trendy bars, nightclubs and art venues. Now a plan to mark the entry points to London's cosmopolitan Brick Lane with giant arches in the shape of headscarves or hijabs has been condemned as offensive to Muslim women and a waste of £1.85m of public funds.

The proposed arches, part of a "cultural trail" through the street – immortalised in Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane – have been criticised as "misconceived" and "excluding". Locals have said they risk ghettoising a community that considers itself tolerant and diverse. Tracey Emin, who lives just off Brick Lane, is one of a number of residents in the east London area who claim that Tower Hamlets council risks inflaming racial tension by trying to force the "hijab gates" – as they have become known – through without proper consultation. After an outcry, the council has extended the deadline for complaints to 22 February.

One local Muslim woman has told the council that the stainless-steel, illuminated arches "create a stereotypical image of Islam, and endorse the practice of the veil that not all of us are happy with. It is a divisive image and one that in the present climate is highly inappropriate. Tower Hamlets should be seeking to bring communities together at this moment." Another, a hijab wearer, said that to call the gates anything other than a hijab was "just semantics". She said: "It is a huge waste of money. There has been enough conflict and tension since Brick Lane started developing after the yuppies moved in. This looks to me like a tool of aggravation and is taking a step backwards."

The Spitalfields Trust, which helped to save many of the historic Huguenot silk weavers' houses that abut Brick Lane, has urged the council to abandon its "misconceived" idea.

The cultural trail through the area is aimed at celebrating the various migrant communities – including Huguenots, Jews and now Bangladeshis – that have settled there across hundreds of years.

Using planning-gain funds paid to the council following the development of Bishops Square and Spitalfields market, the trail is intended to bring more tourism into the area and smarten it up. But locals complain that the focus has been too much on the Bangladeshi community, which makes up a third of the Tower Hamlets population.

At the centre of the trail is a 29 metre high minaret that has been attached to the Brick Lane mosque, a grade II listed building originally built in 1742 as a Huguenot church, then converted into a synagogue and now the Brick Lane jamme masjid [mosque]. Tower Hamlets council says the structure "is not a minaret" but a "large steel art sculpture".

Brick Lane and its side streets are also home to artists such as Emin, Gilbert and George, Jake Chapman, the actor Samantha Morton, as well as architects, designers, planners, poets, musicians and others. Many were shocked to learn only recently that the council planned to erect the veil-like structures. Some say that given the high concentration of artists in the area, the design should have been open to competition.

In a letter to the council, Emin wrote: "I sincerely object to these proposals … the proposed material has no relevance to the heritage of the area or its future. I understand that the Jewish East End Celebration Society does not approve the concept overall and neither do the Spitalfields Trust nor the Spitalfields Society, as stated in the review of the consultation. I am shocked to learn that the scheme is budgeted at £2m and I strongly feel that rubbish collections, vermin control, education and improved policing are more important to resolve."

Broadcaster John Nicolson, who lives off Brick Lane, said: "Throughout history numerous groups have passed through here and made it home. That's what makes Spitalfields so special. It belongs to all of us – atheists, Muslims and Christian, homosexuals and heterosexuals, men and women. The council's latest wheeze – metal arches in the shape of headscarves – is exclusive and excluding. They'd never dream of crucifix-inspired gates – nor should they – so why an arch that is both Islamic and representing a specifically conservative form of Islam?"

A spokeswoman for the council said the concept behind the arch was "loosely based on the sculptural form of a headscarf, reflecting the many cultural backgrounds that have occupied and sought refuge in and around Brick Lane over the centuries".

She said headscarves were worn for a variety of purposes, "such as for warmth, for sanitation, for fashion or social distinction; with religious significance, to hide baldness, out of modesty, or other forms of social convention", and not only by Muslims.

"Observant married Orthodox Jewish women, for example, are required to cover their hair, often employing scarves for the purpose, and Jewish men will use a kippah or yarmulke to cover their heads for religious purposes." She went on: "Many men and women currently wear headscarves or bandannas as a fashion statement, and with Brick Lane being a cultural melting pot both historically and now at the start of the 21st century, this design reference seems appropriate and fitting."

But Will Palin, secretary of Save Britain's Heritage, and a local resident, said: "The headscarf motif is undoubtedly faith-specific to Islam and therefore does not represent the breadth and richness of the borough's history."

At the Beigel Bake, a few metres from the site of one of the proposed arches, Sammy Minzly had been unaware of the proposals.

He said: "I have been here 50 years, and they haven't even told me about it. This used to be a Jewish area, and all my life I have been here. It is disgusting that they have not shown us the respect to ask us what we think."


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