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Canal knowledge

On this week’s virtual ramble, Diary meets an ‘Angry Young Man’ writer, recalls a waterways renaissance, and raises a glass to the generation who fought the Nazis

08 May, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

The Grand Union Canal below the Westway. Photo: Oxyman

HELLO, refreshed friends!

Diary left you last week after a bout of rigorous schmeissing at the Porchester Baths – a ritual steam-room thrashing introduced by Jewish immigrants in the 1880s – and now, dried and togged up, let us resume on our weekly, virtual stroll of the quiet Westminster streets as we remember what joy it is to be a Londoner.

Our first stop is Chepstow Villas, a quick mooch westwards from Porchester Road.

It was at number 24 that “Angry Young Man” novelist Colin Wilson, whose books so brilliantly captured the spirit of London in the late 50s and early 60s, lived for a time – and recounted the Beatnik Bohemian goings-on behind its front door in his book Adrift In Soho.

The lead character, based on the author, hangs out at number 24 and watches various arty types mope around and achieve little.

When he wrote about how he researched the bestseller for the Sunday Dispatch, he spoke of getting stoned at the Villas. The article caused a stir among the squares, with questions raised in the House of Lords as to whether Wilson’s article might incite the innocent to dabble in drugs.

The Director of Public Prosecutions decided, on reflection, there were no grounds for charges to be brought. Wilson was himself no advocate of turning on, tuning in and dropping out: he writes of the Villas’ inhabitants with a detachment that sees through their attempts to be “cool”, and when his protagonist gets passed a reefer, he decides “the kind of muzzy happiness it created was the enemy of incisive thought or feeling”.

From the Villas and Wilson, it seems fitting to now head to nearby Portobello Road, where a cornerstone of London’s counter-cultural publications was once based. Frendz magazine was the spiritual sibling to such publications as Oz and International Times, and had originally been the London edition of the California magazine Rolling Stone – but when they had differences of editorial opinion, Frendz editor Alan Marcuson had enough advertisers to break out alone.

Colin Wilson. Photo: Tom Ordelman Thor NL

True to all good counter-culture magazines, the editor would be charged under the Obscene Publications Act, for, as he put it, “a picture of Otto Muhl sh***ing on stage and something by Malcolm Livingstone about the secretary on the way to work that gets knobbed by everyone”.

Along from the broom cupboard offices of Frendz you will find the Westway, worthy of a begrudging eye glanced in its direction.

In purely engineering terms, that dank monstrosity is special. At its completion in 1970, it was the longest continual elevated structure in Europe and boasted heated slopes so ice did not form on gradients.

Urban myths surrounding the road include rumours that the concrete contains various bodies of unfortunates who crossed the Krays.

Apparently the thousands of tons of hardcore became a discreet resting place for those they didn’t want to have around.

One of the many houses demolished to make way for the A40 was the childhood home of world middleweight champion boxer Terry “The Paddington Express” Downes. Your correspondent’s father grew up in a flat below the Downes family and they were childhood friends – which was handy for Diary’s old man when tackling anti-Semitic street bullies.

From the Westway, we cross the Grand Union Canal, the 137-mile-long route from London to Birmingham, at the junction of Harrow Road.

Let us pause for a moment to consider how (usually) today the canal bristles with walkers, cyclists and people living on boats.

Not so, of course, in the 1970s when London’s canals were symbolic of our industrial decline.

Because the canals were seen as places to dump stolen safes, used firearms and other unwanted detritus, not many wanted to wander along them.

Change came almost unintentionally. The GLC, which managed the waterways, struck a deal with the Electricity Board. They needed to lay new high-powered cables across London, which would mean digging up miles of roads and sinking cooling shafts to keep them from overheating. Instead, they hit on the wheeze of laying them along towpaths – and using the canal water to make sure the cables did not get too warm.

But by doing so, workers had to clear the towpaths of obstacles, bushes, and the like, thus making them accessible. It helped kickstart the canals’ renaissance.

Before we sign off for another week, let us bask in this early May sunshine in the gardens at Edbrooke Road, just north of the Union canal. While it looks like a traditional west London Victorian square, its creation is marked with tragedy. Two high-explosive bombs landed on the street on the night of October 7 1940 – partially demolishing a row of houses and leading to multiple casualties.

After the war, instead of rebuilding on the bomb sites, a campaign by neighbours turned them into a green space. They are a little patch of green remembering the dark nights of the Blitz, complete with a memorial to those who lost their lives. Today, as we mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe, we will rest a while, eat our sandwich, and raise a glass as we remember the sacrifices made by the generation who beat the Nazis.

Till next week, readers.

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