It has been a fair while posting my last piece here. More than two years in fact. So much happened since. I finished my PhD. for starters and left facebook, remarkably causing more people to visit this site than ever. But above all I discovered loads of fascinating stories I began longing to tell someone, somehow. Time to re-activate this blog and start posting. Like about this small sign I discovered just around the corner attached to the wall of a local groceries. There are no cinema’s around any more for a while now. The Studio’s as they were famously called in Leuven (Belgium) were demolished and some student homes build instead. So the sell by date of this little one has long passed. Streetarcheology or something. The world begins just outside one’s doorstep.
I visited London some weeks ago. Just a short city trip with my spouse. As always, I kept my eyes and ears wide open for rumours about old dance- or music halls. A spontaneous chat in a pub informed me about the illustrious Wilton’s Music Hall. A short search thereafter (I love wifi!) got me acquainted with the lovely website. I sent an email straight after that. No reaction whatsoever. Not even after days. So I plucked up courage and knocked
down the door.
One of the more fascinating things about London is the overwhelming amount of signs. You simply can’t turn around anywhere without facing one, wherever you are. Combine that with the typical British heritage genes and you got an official road sign indicating Wilton’s Music Hall on the corner between Graces Alley and Mint Street.
I can’t remember anything of the kind around the corner from that other ‘famous belgian heritage theater project’ called ‘Roma’ in Anwerp. It just makes no sense to compare either. Antwerp isn’t even remotely the metropolitan area it pretends to be even in its wildest dreams. The difference with London was in this case obvious from the start. For example, I had to think twice from when, where or what, but I unconsciously knew Wilton’s years before I entered it. Then it popped up in my head that I must have been by that album artwork of “Burlesque” the second Bellowhead album I reviewed ages ago for a notoriuous Belgian folk site Folkroddels.be (folk rumours). Add to that the fact David Suchet, himself (he just IS Poirot, you know) allowed to use his name to create leverage and awareness about this place and you crash down somewhere in a no man’s land inhabited by Agatha Christie’s specter and a Grade II* heritage detective story.
Following this Wikipedia Wilton’s insert the place was erected around 1859 by a certain Mr. Jacob Maggs. After the 1877 fire it got re-built and later on, a Methodist mission ran a social care centre from this devilish place. From there it was closed down, changed into a rag shop of some kind and eventually enlisted for demolition like the rest of the neighbourhood in the ’60. Typical story really. Only the cinema phase lacks and luckily it does, otherwise the original interior design would have been wiped out ages ago. Pillars seem not to go well with an undisturbed sight on a white screen. So, simply put, because of its naked existence, in case of Wilton’s, one can speak of a mere miracle. But, don’t be fooled. It cost Peter Sellers one of his many injured limps to prevent it from being ravaged prematurely as one of the last historic venues of the legendary East End.
The reason behind this scandalous lack of heritage vision in the past, was inspired by the tinkering of some progressive British minds wanting to upgrade whole neighbourhoods in one stroke during the golden sixties. Which they didn’t succeed in lucky enough. On the contrary. Poverty ended up even more entrenched in the same areas it already existed for ages. You can actually verify that factually, by the way. Only days before, I stumbled across Charles Booth’social maps of London in the London City Museum he created between 1886 and 1903. They are now digitised and ever so appalling a sight as always: in a century nothing really changed. You can see it with the naked eye. Nightmare.
How’s that? I you dig a bit deeper into London reality you soon enough discover how. In London there is no such thing as a well functioning real estate market. The real property, the actual soil that is, still is in the hand of government and a handful of families stemming from age old gentry or nobility. The richest man in U.K. doesn’t create jobs in any way. He just owns a few acres of London Metropolitan Area next to Regent’s Park and that’s all. He didn’t do anything to own it either. He just was born in the right place and time and inherited the whole asset. The place still can be fenced out any time of the day and is indicated by black cast iron poles and rolling fences.
Buying a house like we tend to do massively in Belgium, has become virtually impossible in London. You lease the place for 33 or more years. After that it returns in the hands of the original owners. Basically, this means that the price of any real estate is defined not by demand or market, but more likely by a very small group of owners. Considering their factual dominance they probably can be expected to tend to defend common interests (very similar to what trusts of cartels do).
No wonder real estate prices remain sky high. No wonder Pikety and the like consider real estate as the most resilient form of financial capital in terms of anchoring inequality in any society. It is a rather interesting illustration British society still misses some of the benefits of the French revolution: the expropriation of church and nobility enforced by the fear of the guillotine!
But disregarding these afterthoughts, the place possess a rather fascinating interior design. Beside that, the whole project actually is interesting for any visitor from the continent as it illustrates neatly the way the Brits manage heritage projects. They are king in crowd funding anyway. By sheer coincidence I scored a printed pop-up model in a commercial toy shop in Covent Garden. They also sold towels there, printed over with old theatre posters from Wilton’s and in the shop of the venue we stumbled across cups and even more exotic gadgets. The booklet recounting the history of the place was sold out, otherwise I surely would have fetched it straight away.
Thinking over all this on my way back, I stumbled across a street party at Euston Road. These guys were launching a project to actually re-erect the original entrance arch of the most ancient of all railroad stations in the world. By sheer coincidence, I blogged about this mythical place last year/. As a volunteer only recently discovered the original building blocks dumped into a river, it was hight time to undo some damage of the past. Impossible? Madness? I don’t know. But I do know the British and I wish them all the luck. The actual disaster in terms of architecture, dating from the sixties, will possibly be demolished in the future. Most likely because it never properly worked anyway. So momentum to give back to the British railway heritage some of its glorious past might very well be near. Hope they got some press coverage. You know, only five minutes of political courage is all there is needed…
To be continued for sure…
Briefly: it was brillant. A small but fine symposium in New Colleg Oxford. Just what I needed. We stayed in one of the rooms there, which is quite an experience in it’s own right. My wife and I lived for some days in a completely fenced environment of exceptional beauty and quality. Food was served in the ‘Great Hall’, a 14th century dining room slightly reminiscent of Harry Potters’s Hogwards. Which is no coincidence at all as some scènes of the films where captured in a similar place not a mile away from there in Christ Church. By the way, the scene where Draco Malfoy is transfigured into a white ferret by Alastor Moody at the foot of a large oak tree in the middle of a churchyard, was actually filmed in New College. So, A highly romantic place I reckon, and I surly understand better now why one can focus well on exams there. It’s a little bit artificial, of course, as all evil is kept at a safe distance, but so charming, so charming…
My paper presentation was planned at the end of the first quite intense day around 5 o’ clock in the afternoon. I have to admit, it was quite a success. I know it might seem a bit immodest to say so about your own accomplishments, but it just is the truth. I think that the academic habit to actually read paper presentations from paper seldom delivers what I experience as ‘an interesting speech’. It may well be that the slight disregard for the way a slideshow interacts with the spoken word is a cultural thing proper to the academic milieu and as such relatively irrelevant to them. But I personally think it remains ever so important to capture the attention of whatever public you happen to be speaking for. Isn’t that more or less the great secret magical contract about presentation work? OK, we’ll remain quite and sit still for a while, pretending we listen to what you say. But you’d better be damn right entertaining, then! Something like that. If you want to challenge them anyway, of course.
My own paper presentation cost me about two months of intense preparation. To boil down a complex story to the fit into a 20 min. speech, proved quite demanding (thanks to the excellent coaching of my mate Olivier Vandeloo, by the way). I guess the slideshow evolved over about a 30 different versions and required many more rehearsals, stopwatch in hand. I must confess, that I only started to feel comfortable about it just an hour or so before delivering it. One can argue that this is way to serious, but I still don’t think it was. I just didn’t want to lose it in front of such a fine audience in such a lovely place as New College in Oxford.
I hereby want to express my gratitude towards the organisation and all the work they invested in making this a success. And especially I wish to thank to Mrs. Jennifer Torp for the warm welcome and all the care.
For who it may concern, I hereby can give access to the audio recording my wife made during my speech: DOWNLOAD.
The presentation itself cannot be dropped online, alas, for it contains some rather graphic material of archival sources from at least half a dozen of institutions. It would be madness to even try to clear the copyrights just for this blog. Perhaps for an article in the future? Or a broadcast? Who knows ?
To be continued for sure…