Suggs and the City
Copyright © 2009 Wavelength Films Limited and Suggs
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First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2009.
eISBN : 978 0 7553 1927 5
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Table of Contents
I would like to thank Wavelength Films, who conceived the original idea for the television documentary series
, out of which this book has grown. Thanks to Emma Barker at ITV London and Barbara Gibbon at Sky for commissioning the series; it gave me a chance to explore my city and its past, and opened doors to some extraordinary places and some wonderful people.
A number of the stories recounted here first featured in the series, and because of that I’d like to acknowledge the contributions of everyone who appeared in
. I also want to thank the production crew, including Mike Mortimer, Kate Smith, Micaela Blitz and Justin Coleman. The programmes were a starting point but the book has expanded way beyond them. Consequently, I am indebted to the huge amount of additional research and work that the team at Wavelength Films undertook to help me produce this book; specifically Philip Crocker, Patrick McGrady and Lucy Ward. I could not have written it without them.
I would also like to thank Andrea Henry at Headline for her belief in this book from the start, and David Wilson and Jo Whitford for helping to pull it all together at the end.
Above all, thanks to Anne for putting up with me for all these years.
To Alf Masterson, the last rag-and-bone man
’ve lived and worked most of my life in London. I grew up here, met my wife, got married, saw my children born, and in the last 40-odd years I must have traversed most of the city’s highways and byways at one time or another. As a musician I’ve written numerous songs about the place and over the years I’ve played with Madness in most of its venues, from its smallest to its grandest. I’ve made television and radio programmes about London, and from rather humble beginnings I’ve had the great privilege to live and work among its many walks of life, from the top to the bottom, experiencing all the colour and diversity on offer. London has been an unending inspiration, and - for good or ill - it has made me the man I am today.
It’s a city that’s changed a lot since I took my first heady breath of perfumed carbon dioxide: old buildings have come down, new buildings have gone up, fads and fashions have come and gone like the wind up the Thames. This is a city that never stays still, and its knack for relentless reinvention is what makes it such an exciting place to live in. It’s been constantly evolving for thousands of years, as new waves of Londoners settle here from all corners of Britain and beyond, just as my ancestors came in days gone by to seek their fortune in the big smoke. Each fresh arrival adding a new note to the ongoing song of London life.
But sometimes in the rush to the future, important things get lost along the way: old buildings that no longer serve their original purpose, old trades, old ways of doing things. Often they’re the things you barely notice sliding away. They seem to have been there forever, until one day you wake up and they’ve gone, victims of the wrecking ball, hikes in rent or the endless domination of the high-street brands. By the time you realise what’s happened it is, of course, too late to do anything about it.
This book is my attempt to celebrate some of those people and places that have floated into my firmament while they’re still around, and to remember others that have already disappeared from the map. Sadly time’s constant march was all too evident during the writing, as a number of the places I was featuring slipped away even in the course of completing the book. At times I started to dread documenting another endangered spot, for fear I was the curse that would finish them off !
But I’m very glad I didn’t stop. This book is a love letter not a lecture; I’m no historian, and London’s past has been covered by much finer minds than mine. We shall be crossing paths with very few of the capital’s great landmarks and public buildings - if it’s the tourist trail you’re after, you’ve picked up the wrong book. But if, like me, you have a fascination for the ordinary and extraordinary locations that give London its heart and soul, a love of paths not quite so beaten, and an appetite for eccentric, quirky, implausible and often unintentionally hilarious stories of the city, hopefully there’s something here for you.
One of the reasons I’m so fascinated by the wonderful interplay between London’s past and present can be blamed, I guess, on my day job as a musician. It all starts with song-writing. London, in one form or another, has always been a character in the lyrics I’ve written. In the early Madness stuff it was usually only there in the background - the natural setting for the characters whose lives and loves I wanted to sing about. The backdrop then was the London of now, a city seen through the eyes of a young cove from Camden with all the usual preoccupations of young coves from Camden, or anywhere else for that matter. More recently though, it appears as though I may have mellowed a bit, and London’s past has stepped out from the shadows to claim a share of the limelight. For evidence of this unexpected turn of events, I refer you to Madness’s latest musical offering - an album called
The Liberty of Norton Folgate
The first time I encountered those words they instinctively sounded to me like a great title, something Syd Barrett might have come up with in his psychedelic pomp. It happened a couple of years back, while me and the rest of the band - all miraculously still on speaking terms after 30 plus years together - were kicking around the idea of a concept album about London, despite the observation of my esteemed colleague, a certain C. J. Foreman, who enquired as to what the f êêk we thought the majority of the songs that make up our enormous canon of work are about if they aren’t about London anyway. What excited me about this project though was the thought of writing a song about a street or an area in its historical context: not just a song about now, but from then until now. An X-ray snapshot, going down through the surface of today’s city streets, peeling back the layers of grime and history, shrapnel and shoes, broken pots and broken dreams.
Strange that inspiration should strike when I found myself browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Whitstable, on a weekend getaway from it all down on the south coast. I spotted those words - The Liberty of Norton Folgate - in a book called
This Bright Field
, written by a chap called William Taylor and published in 2000. I flicked through its pages after being grabbed by the picture on its cover, which showed a Max Wall-type character, with arms outstretched, singing at the moon in a way only those who’ve had one too many do. It also had a pleasingly intriguing byline which read ‘a travel book in one place’.
It’s the tale of a trainee vicar who was sent to Shoreditch by the Bishop of Oxford, who suggested it might be a good place to do a little ‘exploring’, in order to test his vocation. He ended up living and working there for seven years and went on to become the chaplain to the Guildhall University, so the test was obviously passed.
While Taylor was discovering his ultimate vocation, he also set about discovering the lives and history of the people and the area around Spitalfields. He got a job in the fruit and veg market and was there when it closed down. He also worked behind the bar of the Jack the Ripper pub, which is now the Ten Bells (and well worth a visit, by the way). All in all, it’s a charming book and full of great anecdotes, local culture and dialogue, written by a middle-class man struggling to understand the alien culture of the working classes in their rawest form, almost like an eighteenth-century explorer going up the Amazon and discovering the locals. It’s also a great first-hand historical record of an incredibly ancient part of London going through enormous change.
But Spitalfields has always been a place of great change. Standing just outside the walls of the old City of London, it was originally a rubbish tip. As the centuries passed, it became a point of entry for newcomers fresh off the boats at the docks in Shadwell or Limehouse Basin and hoping to get a foothold in the city proper. Eventually the area became an unofficial town, independent of the conventions of the city: a place where anything and everything was allowed and where notables and worthies from elsewhere in the capital would slip to quietly of an evening to conduct their own nefarious activities.
Even after the walls came down and generations of immigrants made new lives for themselves in the ever-expanding city, a small area of Spitalfields remained a liberty, outside the normal restrictions and laws of the rest of London. Built up as a collection of courts and alleyways off Bishopsgate, a few strides east of the modern-day Liverpool Street Station, the Liberty of Norton Folgate in the 1700s had its own school, church, hospital and almshouses for destitute silk weavers, which are depicted on the back wall of the Ten Bells pub. It even had a daily rubbish collection, which is more than can be said of Camden today! Utterly self-contained and well run by a group of trustees, it also became a refuge for actors, writers, thinkers, louts, lowlifes and libertines - outsiders and troublemakers all. Sounds like our kind of place, does it not?
Being close to the docks and libertarian in its attitude to new arrivals, every race and creed has been through here at one time or another. And some of them settled in Brick Lane: the Huguenot silk weavers exiled from France came with their needles and thread; then came the Jewish settlers, yet more stitches in time; they were then replaced by the Bangladeshis, who kept those sewing machines turning with their leatherwear. A perfect example of London’s strange social continuum as an area passes hands again and again down through the ages.
Here are a few words from the song ‘The Liberty of Norton Folgate’.
Whether one calls it Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets or Banglatown,
We’re all dancing in the moonlight, we’re all on borrowed ground.
Oh, I’m just walking down to, I’m just floating down through,
Won’t you come with me to the Liberty of Norton Folgate?
’Cause you’re a part of everything you see, yes you’re a part of everything you see.
Strangely, no sooner had we put our song-writing pens down than the phone started ringing. Over the course of a couple of days in the spring of 2008 we had just about every news outlet in London on the line asking why we’d written a song about the campaign to save Folgate Street. I didn’t know what they were talking about at first - what campaign? Then I discovered that there was a controversial plan cooked up by architect Norman Foster to build a huge skyscraper on the site and everyone assumed that we had joined the fight against it by penning a protest song to rouse the rabble.
It had never been our intention to get involved in the fight, but in the end we couldn’t really help it. Having just discovered more about the fabulous history of this little slice of the city, it seemed churlish to let it disappear for good so soon after I’d made its acquaintance. For us it wasn’t a battle against development necessarily, more a case of trying to protect one of the last best bits of familiar old London - shabby most definitely, but soulful too, and far too precious to be buried under 50 storeys of concrete, regardless of whether or not it was to have a waterfall on the top.