Friday 26 July 2013

Brixton - from the market to the village

I have a soft spot for Brixton. I lived there from 1989 to 1993, first renting a room in a 1930's mansion block near the Academy and then in a multiple occupancy house on Brixton Hill. The first place was in a great location, right near the centre of Brixton. It had metal fire escapes on the rear of the block in the courtyard and residents would sit out late in the summer, talking and drinking together. The down side was that every time there was a concert at the Academy, the open access to the courtyard meant happy revellers would use it as an open toilet after the show. 

The house on the hill was nice and I had access to a garden. Unfortunately so did the burglars who visited me three times in 1992 and 1993 and who helped me decide to move away. It had its ups and downs but I had some great times there and made many good friends in Brixton. I made a return of sorts between 1996 and 1999 when I worked for Lambeth Council, in and around Brixton, but in truth its many years since I really spent time there. That changed last Friday when I spent the evening with my friends Andy and Ekpo who are Brixton residents and who showed me some of the changes that have been made in recent years.

And my, what changes, many for the better, some less so. Lots of my old favourites have disappeared. Red Records from the High Road has gone, a victim of changing trends in the way we buy music rather than of anything else. It was where I spent hours browsing and then buying lots of 12 inch singles (remember those - if you are old enough of course?). This is where I bought my "Good Lovin'" 12 inch by Klymaxx and also "Touch Me Up" by Body. Ah those were the days. But it wasn't all great - Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam sold their anti-semitic newspapers outside as well as at the Tube Station. Not such a fond memory.

Other long gone old favourites include the fantastic Don't Panic card shop in the old market and to my horror, the fountain in the main square, now renamed Windrush Square. Don't Panic provided me with lots of those arty postcards that I still have a weakness for and was also one of the few places where it was possible to buy postcards of black icons - Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Josephine Baker and Ella Fitzgerald alongside images of Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Lauren Bacall. 

The fountain which stood outside the library was a magnet for Brixtonians of all kinds, including homeless people who would occasionally strip off, put their clothes in the water and add soap powder, resulting in both clean clothes and amazing bubble displays in the fountain which sported a Gaudi-esque design. It has been replaced with scattered seating and although the square is as lively as ever, it lacks the focus that my beloved fountain once provided.

The Ritzy Cinema, Windrush Square
The re-developed Ritzy Cinema  which opened in 1911, is one of the main reasons that the square has remained at the heart of Brixton. Aside from a great programme of film - both art house cinema and more "popular" offerings, the Ritzy has a great bar, a programme of other arts events including readings and exhibitions and best of all on a sunny Friday evening, serves coffee and drinks on their "terrace" on the square. On the evening I was there, it was completely full of wine and coffee drinkers enjoying the sunshine. Possibly only in Brixton, just a few feet away were a number of homeless people including one who was rolling around on the ground, shirtless and making strange noises. The square has always been a focus for Brixton's street population and the coffee drinkers haven't scared them away.

To the side of the Ritzy, in Coldharbour Lane is the Satay Bar Indonesian/ Malaysian restaurant which has been massively popular for many years. It gets queues outside at busy times and is now a Brixton institution. I remember the original Satay Gallery, a much smaller affair, a little further along Coldharbour Lane which was the precursor to today's restaurant. The move to grander premises was part of the old Brixton Challenge regeneration programme from the mid 1990's as was the renovation of the by that time pretty tatty cinema. The Satay Bar is a real success story and an example of how small local business can grow given the right support.

Upper facade of the Woolworth building from 1936, soon to be a Holiday Inn
Other favourites that still grace Brixton include the Woolworth building, which now houses a branch of H and M on the ground floor with the upper level currently empty and retaining its original art deco features. It is to be transformed into a Holiday Inn Hotel. Holiday Inn if you are reading PLEASE do not destroy this most beautiful facade. Brixton was home to the first south London branch of Woolworths which opened in December 1910 in a building a little closer to the railway line than the current site. The original building was lost in the Second World War but Woolworths had relocated further along the road in 1936 and remained there until closing in 2009 - let's keep this little bit of history. 

Woolworths may have gone but Brixton has held on to its other department store - Morleys. When I lived in Brixton Morleys was what we used to call a "god send" selling good quality household goods at reasonable prices. And today it does pretty much the same but boasts a branch of Cafe Nero too. Also still with us is the Reliance Arcade, adjacent to the Woolworth building. The arcade joins Brixton Road to Electric Lane where it has a beautiful Egyptian style art deco entrance. The arcade dates from 1924 with a 1931 extension. The arcade forms part of the world famous Brixton Market which includes the former Granville Arcade built in 1937, now known as Brixton Village.

Electric Lane entrance to the Reliance Arcade
The Granville Arcade was built to the designs of architect Alfred Vincent Burr. The name "Granville" came from the developer - a Mr. Granville-Thompson. It has a network of avenues each given a number for a name, New York style such as Fourth or Fifth Avenue. It is all topped with an arched roof. The Market is much loved in Brixton and is particularly well known for the variety of foods that are on sale. In the past there were many stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables including Caribbean, African and Asian foods. Other shops sold black hair products and low price electrical and household goods.

In recent years the Market has undergone considerable change with many of the older shops closing and a new vibrant restaurant and cafe scene developing. Not only that, it is now re-badged as "Brixton Village". This is where I spent Friday evening with my friends and although there has been some concern about the changing character of Brixton - I loved it. Visitors wishing to eat are spoilt for choice with Caribbean, Latin American, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, locally sourced British foods, bakeries and many other options available. We ate at the Brixton Cornercopia and enjoyed a number of small dishes - chicken, vegetables, lamb and salads with friendly service in a relaxed atmosphere. We followed this up with some great ice cream at the Laboratorio Artigianale del Buon Gelato -  a tiny shop with a big name and some wonderful ice cream. I liked my vanilla and coffee ice cream with a tiny espresso so much that I returned within the week for another one!

The Village also has a number of new non food related shops including a couple of galleries, some places selling "lovely things" for the home and a couple of clothes shops. I will certainly be visiting again. I like the new look Brixton and there is still enough of the old place to keep that soft spot I mentioned at the beginning.

Brixton Village by Yekkes

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Sunday 21 July 2013

Private Lives - "minimal as an art deco curve" - Noel Coward in the West End

Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward on sofa in "Private Lives."
Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward in Private Lives

Noel Coward's Private Lives is currently being revived on the west end stage at Shaftesbury Avenue's Gielgud Theatre. Premiered in Edinburgh in 1930 before moving to London and then Broadway, critic John Lahr would later describe it as being "Minimal as an art deco curve...a plotless play for purposeless people".

Whilst I see his point I disagree. Private Lives uses the relationship of Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne  (formerly Mrs Chase number one) as a vehicle to consider a number of issues still pertinent today, not least the position of women. During one of their many spats following their reconciliation after divorce, (despite having re-married in the meantime) Elyot questions Amanda on whether or not she had "affairs" during their five years of separation. He is appalled when she tells him she has and when challenged that he too had affairs replies "But I am a man". Related issues come up too. Interestingly there is a conversation about growing older that includes reference to rejuvenating hormones (!) whilst Amanda's generation of upper middle class women would have had access to Marie Stopes' book Married Love - which encouraged family planning, explaining various methods of contraception and enabling women of Amanda's class to live more freely.

It would be wrong to think that anything other than a small minority of people were able to live like Elyot and Amanda in the 1920's and 1930's and this is to some extent born out by a remark from the hapless Sybil - unfortunate and deserted second wife of Elyot who, commenting on their riotous behaviour says  "I had no idea there were people who live that way". Few people would have had. I was reminded a little of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust by the selfish behaviour of our privileged characters in Private Lives, the only difference being that there were at least a couple of noble characters in Waugh's novel.

Whilst watching I had to remind myself that the play had been written in the 1920's and that as well as having some contemporary themes, others might be presented in a different way to today, hence the reference to a woman with "a bone through her nose", "strange desires for Chinamen" and the presentation of domestic violence as somehow amusing. Interestingly I sensed hesitation in the audience  during the two scenes featuring domestic violence (from both male and female characters) which Coward may have intended as almost slapstick, but which are viewed differently today. 

The current production features a great performance from Anna Chancellor as Amanda and good performances from Toby Stephens as Elyot, Anthony Calf as Victor and Anna-Louise Plowman as Sibyl. However, I was completely won over by Sue Kelvin's cameo role as the French maid Louise, and her complete disdain for her English employers and their unruly and loutish behaviour, referring to them as "Les idiots". Nice one Sue. 

And going back to Lahr's comment, there was another star of the show - the set in the second and third acts which was an exquisite Parisian art deco apartment with gold plated doors, Eileen Gray influenced rugs, day beds, beautiful lamps and crackly jazz records on the wind-up phonogram. I am assuming this was the work of Anthony Ward, designer. Fantastic. 

The play is currently booking until 21st September.

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Sunday 14 July 2013

Mexico - a revolution in art 1910 - 1940

The current exhibition at the Royal Academy looks at the role played by art in the Mexican revolution of 1910 and the subsequent turbulent years to 1940. It includes the work of a number of Mexican artists  including Diego Rivera, Roberto Montenegro and photographer Agustin Jimenez. Alongside these is the work of artists who spent time in the country and were inspired by its people and politics.

The exhibition charts developments in Mexico following the armed uprising of 1911 after the fraudulent election victory of President de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz - his seventh victory since 1876. His chief opposition, Francisco Madero was conveniently arrested the day before the election, but escaped, fled to the USA and returned in 1911 to lead the uprising that saw him sworn in as president before the year was out. His victory was short lived as he was assassinated in 1913 and Mexico descended into chaos and civil war for a decade. During this period, a number of folk heroes emerged, including Emiliano Zapata and Francisco "Pancho" Villa, both heroes of the poor. Zapata was a small scale farmer and community official whilst Villa briefly assumed wider political authority. Neither lived to old age as Zapata was assassinated in 1919 and Villa in 1923.

Following the end of the revolution in 1920, Mexican artists began to develop new approaches and ideas, moving away from earlier preferences for academic historical and allegorical painting. This was assisted by the appointment of liberal politician Jose Vasconcelos as Minister of Public Education. Vasconcelos persuaded Diego Rivera, already known internationally, to return to Mexico from Paris and to lead a new programme of public art. This resulted in the many murals for which Rivera and artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco are  known.

Roberto Montenegro. Maya Women. 1926
Robert Montenegro - Maya Women
Whilst the muralists produced overtly political work, other artists chose a different, more nationalist approach that included references to the culture of Mexico's indigenous peoples. An example of this is Roberto Montenegro's Maya Women of 1926. It shows four Maya women in profile against the red and yellow Mexican earth with their single storey homes on the background, reflecting on the nobility and beauty of the people and showing their unbroken link to the land.

The exhibition also includes a major work from Rivera himself. His Dance in Tehuantepec from 1928, is the highlight of the exhibition for me. Framed by the door leading from the first to the second galleries of the exhibition, its greens, oranges and yellows and its graceful dancers stopped me in my tracks. It is only possible to see the features of the dancers in the foreground - the man serious, the woman thoughtful, but the setting of the dance amongst the trees and on the bare earth, the dancers without shoes, again emphasises the continuing link between Mexico's indigenous peoples and the earth. This theme is further developed in the exhibition through a series of landscapes and works referencing the Mayan past. Rivera might be best known in the UK for having been Frida Kahlo's longtime partner. Kahlo has just one work in the exhibition - a tiny self portrait from 1938.

Rivera, Diego - Dance of Tehuantepec - Mexican Realism - Oil on canvas - Genre
Diego Rivera - Dance in Tehuantepec
There is a strong photographic dimension to the exhibition with pictures from some of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, including Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martin Munkacsi, just three of many photographers, painters and writers who spent time in Mexico during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Some were attracted by the landscape including Josef and Anni Albers of Bauhaus fame, refugees from Germany who had moved to the USA and visited Mexico regularly. Others were passing through. Hungarian born Capa spent five months in Mexico in 1940 whilst waiting for his US citizenship to come through. He happened to be there throughout yet another bloody election and captured some of the carnage on film. Be warned, some of this makes for distressing viewing.

Cartier-Bresson was in Mexico in 1934 as part of an expedition tasked with touring Latin America and masking a documentary film set to music in each of the countries visited. The film was to cover the history, art, architecture, culture and nature of each country. Rather unfortunately when the crew arrived in Mexico City in July 1934, they found that no funds existed and the project was abandoned. The young Cartier-Bresson stayed on, sent for his younger sister Jacqueline and proceeded to record Mexican street life, warts and all including markets, slums, ruined buildings and brothels. His photographs of the prostitutes of Calle Cuauhtemoctzin are striking for the expressions of the women, their huge eyes and the little attempts at glamour with ornate ear-rings and carefully arranged curls. Like Capa, Cartier-Bresson captures the harshest side of life in Mexico in the 1930s.

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Prostitute, Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico, 1934
Several women were amongst the photographers working in Mexico during the period covered by the exhibition. One of the most prolific was Italian born Tina Modotti who came to Mexico in 1922. A committed anti-fascist she recorded the lives of the workers and eventually became the photographer of choice of the Mexican mural movement. Always active in politics, she was briefly expelled from Mexico in 1930 but later returned, dying there in 1942. My favourite work of hers here, is Workers reading El Machete from 1929 which shows a group of workers studying a newspaper, sheltering from the sun under their wide brimmed hats so that their features are not visible to the onlooker, but the angle of the hats communicates their interest. Perhaps the worker holding the newspaper is reading it to them.

Mexico - a revolution in art 1910 - 1940 demonstrates the very significant contribution that country made to the development of modern art in the first half of the twentieth century - both through its own, native born artists and through inspiring the work of others from around the world. It is a contribution less well known than it should be and one I will be exploring when I visit Mexico City in December this year. I can hardly wait. The exhibition runs until 29th September and is accompanied by an excellent catalogue and a programme of events - details of which are on the Royal Academy website. For me, this is the exhibition of the summer.
Tina Modotti - Workers reading El Machete c1929

Monday 8 July 2013

Moghrabi Cinema Tel Aviv - memories of the silver screen

Tel Aviv - former Mograbi Cinema by Yekkes

Israelis love film. The current world wide success of large numbers of Israeli films is well known with the likes of Ronit Elkabetz, Adir Miller, Ohad Knoller, Amos Gitai and many other actors and directors receiving international acclaim. But the Israeli love affair with film is not something new. In the years following independence when money was scarce, people went to the cinemas in thousands to be entertained. A 1954 UNESCO study showed that residents of Haifa went to the cinema an average of 30 times a year, Tel Aviv residents 24 times and Jerusalemites 18 times, giving Israel the highest number of cinema visits per capita of any country in the world at the time.  This began to change from the late 1960's onwards when television finally came to Israel and together with the decline in audiences, tragedy befell some of the country's best and most visually stunning cinemas.

The cinema pictured here - the Moghrabi, was perhaps the most famous of all. Designed by the eclectic style architect, Yosef Berlin for Syrian Jewish businessman Jacob Moghrabi and opened in 1930, not only did it sport many art deco features but after being roofless for the first few years, allowing screenings under the stars, a sliding roof was fitted in case of the odd rain shower. This feat of technology was not peculiar to the Mograbi and there was at least one other example of a sliding roof in Israel with the Armon Theatre in Haifa. But the Moghrabi seems to have left the most lasting impression.

Berlin was responsible for a number of Tel Aviv's buildings from this period including some stunning examples of the eclectic style. One of these was the Moghrabi House at 72-74 Herzl Street. I have been unable to find out if this is the same Moghrabi family as at the cinema - so if you have the answer please let me know!

As well as being a cinema, the Moghrabi staged plays and was the home of the Folk Opera in the 1940's. Trying to find out what the first film shown at the Moghrabi was, I came across a poster for sale on the internet, dating from 1930 and giving just that information. It reads "The gates of Opera Mugrabi will open soon and the pubic will come to see the wonderful building which was under construction for four years...the opening film will be the greatest of them all - Reo Rita". Another poster advertised the technological wonders of the Moghrabi "Which projector will screen films in the Moghrabi Opera? A Gaumont projector which is the most advanced of image projectors". Both posters were printed by  Etin and Shoshani printing press, and demonstrate the confidence of the new state and its belief in modernity.

As well as being a cultural and social attraction and meeting place, the Moghrabi also witnessed some key moments in the history of the State of Israel. When the United Nations took its vote on partition in November 1947, great crowds gathered in front of the Moghrabi to await the result and danced in the street when the UN voted in favour.

Tragically, an electric short-circuit in the summer of 1986 caused a major fire which eventually led to the building being demolished leaving a huge void at the junction of Allenby and Ben Yehuda streets. From time to time there are plans and proposals put forward to rebuild at least the wonderful facade of the Moghrabi, but I am not aware of any of these being very far advanced. The picture postcard shown above is an iconic image of the cinema with its almost Egyptian style pillars and columns and the steps leading up to the great temple of film. Photographer Rudi Weissenstein's images of the cinema illuminated at night shows an impossibly glowing, glamorous, glorious building lighting up the city through the early years of independence and austerity. Such a loss. How many young Israelis saw their first movie or had their first date here I wonder?  Memories and stories are welcome here!

You might also like this art deco cinema in Fiji or this post about Tel Aviv's eclectic architecture of the 1920's. Browse more photographs of Yosef Berlin's buildings here.

Friday 5 July 2013

Nights Out - Life in Cosmopolitan London

Judith Walkowitz' book Nights Out - Life in Cosmopolitan London tracks the story of Soho from the late nineteenth century up to the Second World War. Her approach to telling this gripping story is thematic rather than linear. It takes us to Soho's Italian restaurants, samples the unique culture of the Lyons Corner House, tells stories about shady nightclubs and about Berwick Street Market's once almost totally Jewish character.

The book is full of characters that have shaped this still most vibrant part of the city. These include Emidio Recchioni, anarchist, successful business man and financier of several assassination plots against Mussolini during the 1930's. A leading light in the anti-fascist element of Soho's Italian community, Recchioni was the owner of the King Bomba provisions store at 37 Old Compton Street, which became a focal point for anarchists of all types as well as artists and Bohemians from nearby Bloomsbury. its takings also funded his unsuccessful attempts on Mussolini's life.

Also from the Soho Italian community and a contemporary of Recchioni, Peppino Leoni began life in London as a waiter in the Savoy Hotel before managing to acquire his own premises in Dean Street in 1926 which today still carries the name of his restaurant, Quo Vadis. Leoni's views were different to those of Recchioni. He was a fascist and was interned in 1940 as an enemy alien - returning after the War to reclaim his restaurant and to continue to manage with a rule of iron for many years.

Women played an important role in Soho's history. The leading ladies in Walkowitz' book include the notorious Mrs. Meyrick, owner of several shady nightclubs in the twenties and thirties including the legendary 43 Club at 43 Gerrard Street with its literary patrons, "Bright Young Things", Jewish jazz musicians, "professional dancers", sexual minorities, politicians and undercover police all rubbing shoulders in the same space. Imprisoned four times for selling alcohol illegally and for bribing the police (amongst other things) she made and lost a fortune but managed to educate her children at Eton and Roedean and to marry her daughters to titled gentlemen.

But it wasn't only the notorious Mrs Meyrick who ensured women feature largely in this book. The iconic "nippies" (waitresses) of the Lyons Corner House, the women "schleppers" or touts, of Berwick Street's rag trade and the ambiguous "professional dancers" of the nightclubs all significantly influenced the character of Soho and displayed different aspects of femininity.

Lyons Corner Houses, huge cafes capable of seating hundreds of customers at any one time were a microcosm of Soho and West End life with unmarked but very clear boundaries between different types of customers including ladies in town for the day, Jewish rag trade workers and a more or less discreet gay presence. All of them wanting to pass time over tea, sandwiches, beans on toast or desserts whilst having possibly illicit assignations. All of this was managed by the vast team of nippies who had to be immaculately turned out in the regulation uniform (which they paid for themselves and which together with their hands, was inspected every day) as well as being polite but not too "familiar" with the customers. They also had to help ensure the propriety of the cafe by looking out for undesirables. One of my favourite characters who is mentioned just once in the book is one George English who was debarred from the Trocadero branch for using "filthy expressions in the new buffet".

This excellent book also looks at the commercialisation of sex in Soho with a whole chapter on the infamous Windmill Theatre - although this began long before the Windmill opened as the story about dancing girls in a Leicester Square theatre in the 1890's wearing entirely flesh coloured clothing bears out (or should that be bares out?). There is also consideration of the long established ethnic diversity of the area - including a fascinating chapter on the black clubs that evolved in the 1930's and thrived during the Second World War with the influx of black GI's.

Regular readers know I love this part of London despite the many losses of some of its more characterful places over the last several years. Judith Walkowitz manages to bring it alive with this excellent book, communicating its vibrancy, its seamier side and the absolute love of life that can still be found in Soho's streets today. Fantastic book Judith - thanks very much!

You might also like London's Best Bits and My Soho.