An organ-grinder at Archway

Pleasures and treasures of the Edwardian street, by a descendant of Scottish banditti.

Market man, Mohammed S., is one of the most interesting people I’ve met since coming to London. He’s a fan of the organ act, which for him recalls the Parisian component of a Franco-Algerian childhood, but I think I’m right in saying that his true love is the old-style general-purpose street market, for which love he appears to have spent time in limbo.

I hope that that kind of market will survive the tsunami of fast food stalls for the asset-owning classes 1, and I think from Doris Neish’s splendid memoir of life at Archway around the time of the First World War – excerpt below – that she would also have been a fan of markets that were all things to all poissons.

Doris was born in 1908, the eleventh child of the London-Scottish part-time poet, William Neish, and his wife, Mary Ann McBeath. A collection of William’s work was published posthumously as Where the Apple-Ringie Grows. I haven’t managed to obtain a copy, but I suspect it will be cautious in approach and melancholy in tone. William Anderson, The Scottish Nation: Or the Surnames, Families, Literature, Honours, and Biographical History of the People of Scotland (1867):

[The MacNabs] carried on a deadly feud with the Neishes or McIlduys (?), a tribe which possessed the upper parts of Strathearn, and inhabited an island in the lower part of Loch Earn, called from them Neish island. Many battles were fought between them, with various success. The last was at Glenboultachan, about two miles north of Loch Earn foot, in which the Macnabs were victorious, and the Neishes cut off almost to a man. A small remnant of them, however, still lived in the island referred to, the head of which was an old man, who subsisted by plundering the people in the neighbourhood. One Christmas, the chief of the Macnabs had sent his servant to Crieff for provisions, but, on his return, he was waylaid, and robbed of all his purchases. He went home, therefore, empty-handed, and told his tale to the laird. Mscnab had twelve sons, all men of great strength, but one in particular exceedingly athletic, who was called for a byname, Iain mion Mac an Appa, or “Smooth John Macnab.” In the evening, these men were gloomily meditating some signal revenge on their old enemies, when their father entered, and said in Gaelic, “The night is the night, if the lads were but lads!” Each man instantly started to his feet, and belted on his dirk, his claymore, and his pistols. Led by their brother John, they set out, taking a fishing-boat on their shoulders from Loch Tay, carrying it over the mountains and glens till they reached Loch Earn, where they launched it, and passed over to the island. All was silent in the habitation of Neish. Having all the boats at the island secured, they had gone to sleep without fear of surprise. Smooth John, with his foot dashed open the door of Neish’s house; and the party, rushing in, attacked the unfortunate family, every one of whom was put to the sword, with the exception of one man and a boy, who concealed themselves under a bed. Carrying off the heads of the Neishes, and any plunder they could secure, the youths presented themselves to their father, while the piper struck up the pibroch of victory.

Stirling and Kenney, The Scottish tourist, and itinerary: or, A guide to the scenery and antiquities of Scotland and the western islands. With a description of the principal steam-boat tours (1830) adds an indispensable detail:

In commemoration of this event, the Macnabs have a Neish’s head for the family crest, with the motto Dread Nought.

It is a great shame that, following the success of his Irish Gaelic parodies, Flann O’Brien didn’t spend time in Scotland.

Doris lived in Harberton Road from 1914 until her death in 1993 and wrote up her memories for the Islington Gazette in the late 1960s. This excerpt is reproduced with the kind permission of Kristina Kashvili, who transcribed them, and with thanks to intermediary MM:

Remembering back over the years everything has altered but with change there was an often better substitute. But – there is a gap. Never replaced were the “Voices of the Streets”. Every trader from the errand boys whistling, to the street singers, could by sound identify themselves. “Coal, coal” – “Sweep”. There he would be with rods and brushes perched on his shoulder and his face still sooty from his previous jobs. “Any old rags, any old bones, any old iron”! Also the man with his tray of freshly backed muffins on his head – ringing a bell. They come no more. The old [but presumably pretty strong] lady who would drag a barrel organ up the Archway Road to give us music – the flute player and the couple whose soprano and tenor voices harmonized in “Love’s Old Sweet Song”. Bells used to ring, large clocks would chime. It is over 50 years since I last saw the lady with a basket on her arm and heard her singing

Won’t you buy my sweet Lavender
Sixteen bunches for one penny
You buy it once – you buy it twice
It makes your clothes smell fresh and nice

Only the memory, like the scent from lavender lingers.

Someone special was a man who would come sometimes near the close of a warm day and play a harp. He would sit on a stool while people gathered near. Into his cap would drop not only pennies but silver threepenny pieces. In the gathering dusk his beautiful music would fill the air and fill us with happiness.

So long ago these simple pleasures
Through memory’s door – return as treasures

In 1913 Alfred Noyes wrote a premonitory ballad:

There’s a barrel-organ carolling across a golden street
In the City as the sun sinks low;
Though the music’s only Verdi there’s a world to make it sweet
Just as yonder yellow sunset where the earth and heaven meet
Mellows all the sooty City! Hark, a hundred thousand feet
Are marching on to glory through the poppies and the wheat
In the land where the dead dreams go.

I think Doris has aged better, and wish I could trace that couplet. (Perhaps it is a Neish-ism.) Here though is John McCormack in 1927 singing Love’s Old Sweet Song (Just a Song at Twilight):

Stuff

  1. But then with the addition of the itinerant boxers I met in the Rif, and the great piles of junk scattered over the grounds of the old Encants in Barcelona. Speaking as an amateur cook, at the moment my absolute favourite markets in East London are probably the wholesalers:

    1. New Spitalfields in Leyton – open after the pub, but less confusing after a few hours sleep for purchasers of wedding flowers, or of the “Fruits and Vegetables … which could be cost effictive, qualitative and quantitative and fresh too” of these Punjabi lions‘; it’s also convenient for Lea duck and Eurostar Engineering;
    2. Billingsgate – Spanish with rucksacks full of cheap octopus, again best before dawn.

    But the greater your distance from the money, the better the knife stalls.

Hackney Brook restoration scheme

Iain Sinclair wrote of when “global warming rolls a warm sea [up] the course of the old Hackney Brook.” The flow’s going to be the other way. Let me explain.

Olympic creativity didn’t extend to watercourses west of the Lea Navigation, 1 and Hackney Brook – still submerged and redirected – continues to mole along more or less as shown in the cover art of Sinclair’s Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: at the end of Morning Lane it diverges from its natural course down Wick Road and travels under the higher ground of Kenton Road and Gascoyne Road past the People’s Park Tavern into Victoria Park, where, still heading roughly southeast, it follows the path past the tennis courts, exits by Montessori on the Park at St. Mark’s Gate, traverses Cadogan Terrace, and drains into the Hertford Union Canal just below Old Ford Middle Lock, which flows slowly northeast to join the Navigation just south of the German Deli and Crate Brewery.

Things weren’t ever so. Diamond Geezer accompanies his posts on Hackney Brook with a handy map of its original course:

What once was cannot be again, but (with apologies to Baron Haussmann) if as well as a Hackney agrandie and a Hackney assainie you want to see a Hackney embellie, then the vertebra provided by a revived Hackney Brook might help dispel the impression that Hackney Council’s urban strategy consists solely in facilitating the construction of investment objects.

So here’s my seven-point guide to restoring the course downstream from the Mare Street/Amhurst Road/Bohemia Place/Narroway junction to the River Lea Navigation, adding a tentacle to the Hackney Council octopus as well as encouraging citizens to stroll down from Hackney-on-High to Hackney-on-Sea on a Sunday morning:

  1. Wage war on Islington to recover our stolen water
  2. Run the brook between a new bus station and Bohemia Place
  3. Kayak to the Paradise Garden: Mehetabel Road and the Chesham Arms
  4. Simpsonlandia: Cardinal Pole School and Flanders Way
  5. Well Street: regenerated market framed by Jack Cohen memorial & hydraulic organ
  6. Wick Road: sea battles and scampi
  7. Hackney Wick: the delta

Wage war on Islington to recover our stolen water

The mighty torrent with bridge and St. Augustine’s tower in 1791, viewed from the site of the subsequent railway bridge on Mare Street:

… and the pathetic present-day piddle into the Hertford Union, even during the monsoon:

Apologists mutter about storm drains and managed outflow, but the truth is that Islington is stealing our brook at source in Holloway, and probably shipping it to the United Arab Emirates. And look at how they’re benefitting: apart from house prices that are even more absurd than ours, they have Arsenal, while we no longer even have Clapton FC, who play in Forest Gate because Hackney is too arid for grass.

This is bigger than the Netherlands vs Germany re traffic and flood management on the Rhine 2, this is bitchier than the squabbling sons of Shem, and we of Hackney have more guns than them. So let’s annex Holloway with the calming promise of free boat trips to Westfield, thus safeguarding our water supply, and then one evening I’ll be able to present a second plan for the restoration of the brook from its source in Holloway, via Clissold Park, Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington Common and Hackney Downs to Mare Street.

Run the brook between a new bus station and Bohemia Place

The St. John-at-Hackney conservation and management plan says that the brook currently runs in a drain under Arriva’s Clapton bus garage (allocation: 100 buses), so having the brook flow along Bohemia Place is the simple option. We suspect, however, that Hackney Council, TfL and St John-at-Hackney will prefer to redevelop the bus station, and it is the counsel of our lords that will stand. Given that, we will build a smaller garage on the north side of the site using some simple variant of VW Wolfsburg’s vertical stacking:

The brook will flow between Bohemia Place and the new bus station, which will be skinned as the back of a bus, from the exhaust pipe of which the brook will emerge.

Proximity to St. Augustine’s tower will be to our intellectual and moral advantage. Like the barrel organ’s conversion of boundless sound into a revolving mess of pins, Augustine’s Confessions are a meditation on infinity where time is short – in Flann O’Brien’s Dalkey Archive, the best commentary on the Confessions, time being represented by aqualungs in a subaqueous cavern:

Then Mick saw a figure, a spectre, far away from him. It looked seated and slightly luminescent. Gradually it got rather clearer in definition but remained unutterably distant, and what he had taken for a very long chin in profile was almost certainly a beard. A gown of some dark material clothed the apparition. It is strange to say that the manifestation did not frighten him but he was flabbergasted when he heard De Selby’s familiar tones almost booming out beside him.
– I must thank you for coming. I have two students with me.
The voice that came back was low, from far away but perfectly clear. The Dublin accent was unmistakable. The extraordinary utterance can here be distinguished only typographically.
Ah not at all, man.
– You’re feeling well, as usual, I suppose?
Nothing to complain of, thank God. How are you feeling yourself, or how do you think you’re feeling?
– Tolerably, but age is creeping in.
Ha-ha. That makes me laugh.
– Why?
Your sort of time is merely a confusing index of decomposition.

The barrel organ has one of its roots in the kind of simple automated clock (said to be late 16th or early 17th century) found in St. Augustine’s tower. Though Flann’s Augustine claims that “Book Two of my Confessions is all shocking exaggeration,” he might have appreciated the early use in Dutch brothels in the 1680s of mechanical organs, mechanical musical instruments like carillons having been driven out of the churches by the Calvinists, who made the grievous error of introducing religion in their place.

This section’s water music from the Singing Organ-Grinder is therefore Cool Water, which seems to have been inspired by Psalms 42:1 (As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God):

Dan’s feet are sore, he’s yearning for
Just one thing more than water,
Cool water.
Like me, I guess, he’d like to rest
Where there’s no quest for water,
Cool, clear water.

Keep a-movin’, Dan, don’t you listen to him, Dan,
He’s a devil not a man
And he spreads the burning sand with water,
Cool water.
Dan, can you see that big green tree
Where the water’s running free
And it’s waiting there for me
And you?

Kayak to the Paradise Garden: Mehetabel Road and the Chesham Arms

The fashion hub under the railway arches on Morning Lane has no space for a brook or the watercress beds of old:

… and so the next section depends on the residents of the south side of Mehetabel Road being prepared to trade the damp end of their garden, up against the railway wall, for a (generally non-navigable) stream. Were they to say yay, then an annual performance could be held of Delius’ A village Romeo and Juliet:

At a local fair [Narroway], Sali and Vreli buy rings. Sali mentions an inn, the Paradise Garden, where they can dance all night, and they go there. The Dark Fiddler and some vagrants are drinking there. He greets the lovers, and suggests they join him to share a vagabond life in the mountains. Instead, Sali and Vreli decide that they cannot live such an existence, and they resolve to die together, uncompromising in their love for each other. They leave the inn and find a hay barge, which they release from the dock to begin to float down the river. As the Dark Fiddler observes them, Sali removes the plug from the bottom of the boat, and Sali and Vreli sink with the boat.

The Singing Organ-Grinder has made a version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for barrel organ, so Delius should also be feasible.

Singing Organ-Grinder water music? Let us recall the words of an Irish friend at the Eagle, on being asked at which track the horses on which he was betting were racing: “I haven’t got a facking clue.”

Simpsonlandia: Cardinal Pole School and Flanders Way

Between Link Street and Ponsford Street the brook stays north of the railway, passing south of the estate, and then crosses the railway at the bridge, perhaps flowing along the railway through the grounds of Cardinal Pole School and then entering Flanders Way.

Flanders Way is the southern outpost of Simpsonlandia – Springfield Park, Homer-town, the parish (church) of St. Bart and Lisa Star Nails on Stamford Hill, St. Maggie’s at St. Saviour’s… Here the brook will host a population of three-eyed fish in tribute to Blinky:

Well Street: regenerated market framed by Jack Cohen memorial & hydraulic organ

Well Street needs a well again in some shape or form, partly to provide a focus for a regenerated market. We’d like this to be between Tesco and the excellent butcher. We’d like a smaller version of Barcelona’s Agbar tower, which was built by the local water company without the functionality attributed to it in (gay) urban legend – a spout of water emerging from the top:

Image: Axelv

Our version will include this functionality, and will be cut in such a way as to evoke Jack Cohen, who started his Tesco empire on this spot.

Reduced traffic flow will enable Well Street to extend beyond its current junction to meet the clump of trees on the corner of Flanders Way, and a small circular polyphonic hydraulic organ, driven by the brook, supplemented by the small stream flowing down Well Street, will terminate the market:

Water music from the Singing Organ-Grinder: Little Boy Billy, a maritime take on Sweeney Todd:

Wick Road: sea battles and scampi

Traffic. You only need a tiny fraction of today’s cars when they can drive themselves and be waiting for you within 5 mins of booking, and that’s just round the corner. For now Wick Road can manage with a single calmed motor transport lane alongside a brook taking up equivalent space. Most traffic currently using that route can be taken up Kenworthy Road, and Homerton High Street can be made essentially one-way westward for the extremely dangerous stretch between Kenworthy Road and Ponsford Street (contraflow for public transport and bicycles), complementing and forming a ring with the one-way eastward traffic on Cassland Road on the other bank of the brook.

This space lends itself to theatrics. In an annual event commemorating a mashup of Battle of Lepanto and the Spanish Armada and Tromp and De Ruyter, or some such, the children of St. Dominic’s Catholic Primary will row up the brook and engage in battle the ferocious meat cleaver wielders in the excellent Kuzu shish bar and others along Well Street, with fearful and quite unpredictable consequences. For such events, seafood and other kiosks will line the tall blocks along the increasingly estuarine promenade that is Wick Road – like Venice, before Venice became a rancid tourist hellhole.

Water music from the Singing Organ-Grinder: a censored version of Barnacle Bill the Sailor, sung by the Caribbean pirates at the Prince Edward:

Hackney Wick: the delta

From the Tiger on the corner of Kenworthy Road we’d take the brook down the middle of Wick Road, with a simple bridge at the junction with the A12, and then down the southern side of Chapman Road. From this point, given sufficient current we’d like to split the brook into several less strictly defined courses draining via rice paddies (more Lower Lea Flood Plan washland…) into the navigation respectively north and south of the railway. But we now must depart to watch and eat bangers, and cannot elaborate this eminently sensible proposal any further.

Water music from the Singing Organ-Grinder: the German beach classic, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Honolulu Strand Bikini:

Ah, rainy Saturdays.

Stuff

  1. Doc dump: GLA Olympic Legacy doc; Mayor’s Olympic Waterways Strategy; 2009 LRAP Plan; last Thames Rivers Trust news update is from 2013 & their link to the River Restoration Centre leads to an estate agent of the same acronym – but no doubt all Olympic money was well spent.
  2. Alex van Heezik, Battle over the rivers. Two hundred years of river policy in the Netherlands is good, full Dutch version (Strijd om de rivieren) is very good.

Reïmagining Neil Young

Something I’ve been doing ever since I first heard a taped On the beach in the squat next to Islington Town Hall on Upper Street, with Ra$ta the incontinent cat periodically tumbling from his armchair perch, suffering stoically from his compulsive consumption of any small dark lumps discovered on his quite limited travels.

Not that there’s anything wrong with what Mr Young does (though the man’s as foxed as a ferret, of course), but because he hangs possible points of departure all over the place.

The uke version of the wonderful Tumbleweed on Storytone gets one’s thoughts going, and then -o frabjous day!- there’s an orchestral version to compare them with.

Being suddenly able to play around with everything and its auntie without having to navigate the psychic wash of bass players and drummers is the blessed curse of this street organ lark.