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Bar Italia Serves the Spirit of Italy

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BAR ITALIA SERVES THE SPIRIT OF ITALY

Bar Italia is an Italian café in Soho that has been making excellent coffee since 1949. You can also get paninis, pizzas, wine, and liquor as you watch football on the television at the back.

Bar Italia, 22 Frith Street, Soho, London W1D 4RF. Phone: 020 7437 4520

READ FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI’S STORY

And now it’s morning
There’s only one place we can go
It’s around the corner in Soho
Where other broken people go

Pulp, Bar Italia

In the months leading to my daughter’s birth, conscious that I didn’t need the extra anxiety, I quit coffee. When I came back to the cup two years later, I did it in a caf in Dalston. This must have been mid-2013, and at the time I wasn’t familiar with the semiotics of dark grey walls and heavily tattooed — and heavily bearded — baristas. I didn’t make much of the ubiquity of Apple products in a given place. Nor did I pay much attention to a quirky WiFi password or the ’80s music blasting ironically from the speakers. When my coffee arrived, I was surprised by what food writer Jay Rayner would describe with grace and accuracy a year later: “The colour is right. It’s coal black and across the surface is a fine, seashore foam of copper-coloured froth, the all important ‘crema’. The taste, however, is wrong. Very wrong.” I thought that my espresso was perhaps defective and sent it back. The second cup tasted very wrong too and I attributed the spiteful flavour to me falling out of love with coffee after a long hiatus. It took me several weeks to figure out this was a new kind of coffee: light roast was the name of the offending blend.

To this day, I would rather drink molten lead than one of these sour insults to the senses. Obviously, it is a matter of taste, yes. And in this matter of taste it is “heads of coffee development” in open plan offices that allow dogs, catering to well-off and caffeinated entrepreneurs of pop-ups and startups, and influencers of the world united in their terrible love for beans that taste like defecated tar who are in charge of deciding what good taste means. And so the sour coffee revolution keeps expanding beyond the confines of hip Dalston. Soon the whole of London — if not the world — will be Sour Coffee Hell.

To avoid the disappointment of this eye-squinting sour nonsense I have recently taken a radical decision: I only engage in caffeinated adventures in Bar Italia, Soho. No, it isn’t practical. And it obviously means I can’t drink coffee every time I fancy one. But at least I get to visit Soho more often.

bar italia soho london

Bar Italia stands in 22 Frith Street. It was opened in 1949 by the Polledri family, who borrowed the money to open it — £50 — from a fellow paesano. Seventy years later, the same family continues to own it. Perhaps as a testament to this continuity the bar looks pretty much as it would have in 1949, ancient till and espresso machine included.

Back at the time of Bar Italia’s birth, Soho was an area of London popular with the Italian community. Soho, with the famous Algerian Coffee Store just around the corner, was the go-to place for those after a good coffee. One and one make two, and the bar was a success from day one. Legend has it that, on the day of the opening, a party was organised on the street with the American comedians Abbott and Costello entertaining the attendees. Since then, it has continued in this trend, becoming a favourite spot for many famous Londoners and visitors: David Bowie, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul McCartney, among many others — including many jazz musicians from Ronnie Scott, just across the road — have patronised and continue to patronise this small café. Those more familiar than me with the world of theatre and television might be able to recognise a face or two in the place as well. Interestingly, this status as a ‘celebrity hotspot’ of sorts was perhaps sealed even before the bar was born: back in 1926, John Logie Bard — the television pioneer — demonstrated his prototype in his lab upstairs, as the blue plaque outside the bar reminds passersby.

bar italia soho london

Bar Italia’s deco and atmosphere really lives up to its name. From the Italian flags, football shirts, cycling memorabilia and pictures of celebrities to the chilli peppers and garlic hanging from the walls, everything is in place to hammer Italia home. The waiters are dressed in white shirts and black waistcoats, much like in your average Roman café. And it isn’t rare to bump into hordes of Italians watching the football on the telly at the back. And if the authentic feel isn’t enough for you, there is the opening to consider: the bar closes at 5 a.m. and reopens at 7 a.m., making it a favourite of late drinkers, early risers, and those who just stayed up all night, natural or chemically-induced insomniacs — a licensing miracle fixed for posterity in the homonymous Pulp song that opens this piece.

It is always reassuring to bump into a piece of London where history hasn’t been erased and replaced by the latest fad. Soho is an area under threat both by gentrification and the CrossRail development. Many of the places that gave it its aura have gone or will be gone soon. Bar Italia hangs on — heroically. May it hang for a long time. Or I will have to quit coffee again.

Photographs by Fernando Sdrigotti

 

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History And Half-Pints At The French House

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HISTORY AND HALF-PINTS AT THE FRENCH HOUSE

The French House is a pub in Soho that opened in 1891 (then known as the York Minster). Famous patrons over the decades have included Dylan Thomas, Lucien Freud, and Francis Bacon. It famously serves only half-pints of beer, except on April Fools’ Day. Mobile phones are not allowed on any day of the year. The French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 5BG. Phone: 20 7437 2477

READ FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI’S STORY

I walked into The French House for the first time a few weeks after moving to London in 2002. I was in Soho with a friend, and we had some time to kill. Maybe the outside of the pub, cluttered with French flags, seemed attractive because I had been living in Paris until very recently. Perhaps it was the Grade II listed building that called us in. Or perhaps we just drifted into the pub aimlessly, like one drifts into many places without much of a thought when wasting time in London. It must have been around three or four in the afternoon, but the tiny bar was already besieged by thirsty punters puffing away (as used to be the tradition until the smoking ban was introduced in 2007 and we discovered pubs actually smelled of wet dog). After waiting for two or three minutes, we managed to order two pints of beer. Here we bumped into the first “eccentricity” of The French House: they only served half-pints, as the barman informed us with the blasé demeanour expected of a London barman. Now this might be akin to a personal affront to the regular British beer drinker — that lesser of evil the half-pint — but we just accepted this without much thought. The second “eccentricity” didn’t take long to arrive. My friend’s mobile phone rang (these were the days when people actually called instead of sending text messages), and he answered. And as soon as this happened, the bartender shouted in our direction, pointing to a sign above written in yellow chalk on a small black wooden board: IN THE INTEREST OF SERIOUS DRINKING AND GOOD CONVERSATION PLEASE DON’T USE YOUR MOBILE PHONE IN THE FRENCH. After our initial shock — this was 2002, but mobile phones were already pretty ubiquitous — we soon realised that people indeed were conversing, an activity also facilitated by the absence of music or a TV set. This was my first time and not the last one. The French House is one of my usual hangouts in the unusual times I find myself in Central London with time, money, and a thirst to quench. I am pleased to say it hasn’t changed that much in the past 15 years. I am not sure it has changed at all since it opened its doors. The sign warning against mobile phones is still there, not far from a dusty French beret hanging from a pole — reassuring signs that not everything in the Big Smoke is lost.

To have a place that refuses to change and refuses to adapt to a present that many times feels like a defeat is a triumph.

The French House opened in 1891. Back then it was called the York Minster, but it was already known as the French House (or the French Place) by its clientele and the locals. In 1984, the current name was formally adopted after a fire in the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York (also known as York Minster). After the fire, donations for the repair works in the church were sent to the pub by mistake. Now a pub in Britain might be almost a religious institution, but the mixup and the hassle of delivering the donations to their rightful recipients was too much for the landlords. Another, less altruistic, version suggests the reason for the re-baptism lies behind a misplaced order of claret that ended up in the cathedral. In any case, it is hard today to imagine the pub being called anything else but The French House. The pub has been a favourite of Soho bohemians since its early days. Painters like Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, writers like Dylan Thomas (who lost a manuscript there) and Malcolm Lowry, big names from the press — including the mother of all agony aunts, Irma Kurtz — have crossed its doors and sat around the bar, in the cosy wooden interior, at one time or another. Even the French resistance in London drank here during WWII — it is said that General Charles Le Gaulle used it as an office. The hundreds of photos hanging on its walls are reminders that one is drinking in an institution, supervised by many a famous, historically relevant, and sometimes even talented drunk. Sometimes it is possible to bump into a contemporary “star”: musicians, actors, persons of unknown talents yet familiar faces. Not that any of the locals would act differently when this happens.

The pub has been a favourite of Soho bohemians since its early days.

The pub continues with the tradition of serving half pints but has recently relaxed, one day a year, on April the first, also known as April Fools’ Day. Not only can you get a “proper” pint that day, if you arrive early – if you are the first – you might get Suggs, the singer from Madness, to pull the pint for you, as is now the tradition. I ignore Suggs’ credentials as a bartender, but his credentials as a musician are equally dubious and, nevertheless, he has sold a few records. And between a pint or another Madness record, I would take the first one without a second thought. Many things have changed in Soho in recent years. CrossRail, a massive project that will connect London even more and has a massive neural point in Tottenham Court Road, just 100 metres away is the last one to threaten the area. To have a place that refuses to change and refuses to adapt to a present that many times feels like a defeat is a triumph. And it doesn’t matter whether this triumph is served in a small or a large glass. Feature photograph copyright Lsantilli – stock.adobe.com

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The Rochester Castle Imbues The Spirit Of Hackney

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THE ROCHESTER CASTLE IMBUES THE SPIRIT OF HACKNEY

The Rochester Castle in Stoke Newington is the oldest trading Wetherspoons pub. The location has been a pub since 1702 (well before it became a Wetherspoons pub), when it was known as The Green Dragon. It has several photographs with accompanying text displayed on its walls with details and anecdotes of the neighbourhood’s history.

The Rochester Castle, 145 Stoke Newington High Street, Stoke Newington, London N16 0NY. Phone: 020 7249 6016

READ FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI’S STORY

“The finest people I’ve ever met in my life are in pubs.” — Oliver Reed

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of visiting my uncle’s bar in Rosario, Argentina with my dad, back in the 1980s. Almost every weekend we would stop by Junior — such is still the name of the place — on our way back from the cinema or the video games arcade. I was fascinated by the the deco that hadn’t changed in almost 30 years, the parade of faces rushing past the big front windows, the ancient men and women hiding behind their papers, clients who were there every time we turned up, so that you didn’t know whether they were clients or human furniture. As soon as I was old enough I was spending most of my time in bars. This is a sport I’m still practicing, even during periods of voluntary or enforced sobriety. For me it isn’t necessarily about drinking but about finding a place where I can plug into the world. Being in London means I should never run out of these haunts, even if here they go by another name: pubs.

the rochester castle pub wetherspoons stoke newington hackney

What caught my attention the first time I walked into a pub in London was the diversity of the punters. Even in a central London boozer you could see the poor and the rich, the white and the black and the Asian drinking the same beer, every now and then having a conversation, sometimes even enjoying their company. This was over 15 years ago, when pubs smelled of cigarettes and you didn’t have to pay for a pint with one of your kidneys. The pubs where we spend our time today have changed even faster than the city around them, perhaps anticipating the London to come. The gastropub fad, first, evicted many from the places they used to call their second home. The craft beer fad later finished the job. I’m not bemoaning the disappearance of an Old London where everything was nicer and the grass was greener, because I’ve only been here for 15 years. I’m not idealising the local working class, because I’m not working class. It’s just that I’m not interested in places that feel isolated from their surroundings. I’m not interested in the encounters that might take place in them, if any encounter does ever happen. Thankfully, I still have a place to go to. A place that feels about right, that combines the elements I need in order to feel comfortable.

My local, The Rochester Castle in Stoke Newington, is one of almost 1,000 Wetherspoons in the UK. The current building dates back to the late 19th Century, although there has been a pub in this location in one shape or the other at least since 1702. It was taken over by the chain in 1982, making it the oldest ’Spoons still open.

the rochester castle pub wetherspoons stoke newington hackney

The Rochester Castle isn’t necessarily “pretty”, but it’s ridiculously cheap and has an unassuming atmosphere that captures very well the spirit of the area. Old fedora-clad Jamaicans, posties during their lunch break, hipsters on a night out (or on the morning after), some of the posh neighbours having an undercover fry-up, anyone you might see walking down Stoke Newington High Street can be found drinking here. If The Rochester Castle looks and feels like Hackney it’s because it isn’t trying to run away from Hackney — it’s as simple as this, almost obvious, and yet so many pubs, by accident or design, get it wrong. Pub chains are full of contradictions, and the one in question here isn’t any different. But for all we can say about this company — the Brexiteering of its owner is what bothers me the most — we can’t accuse it of not knowing its clientele or the places where it sets up business. Ironically, it has been left to a chain once hyped to destroy the pub industry, to preserve the authentic atmosphere of many a London pub. This is something that Kit Caless, Wetherspoon aficionado and contributor to The City Story, rightly defines as “the Wetherspoon’s Paradox”.

The Rochester Castle has an interesting musical history. During the punk revolution of the late ’70s and early ’80s it was a renowned music venue. Which band played here or not is disputed, but there is some consensus that at least The Jam and XTC played at the venue in 1977. The version that has the Sex Pistols peddling anarchy within its walls, at some point in their early days, seems to be just a myth, sustained perhaps by the fact that Sid Vicious, bass “player” in the band, used to attend a local school as a teen. Stokey legend and librarian Richard Boon — former manager of the Buzzcocks and, for some, the creator of indie music — can be frequently seen drinking in the pub. His is a presence that links the pub’s present with its past. And not the only one, as some of the locals have been drinking in the building for decades.

the rochester castle pub wetherspoons stoke newington hackney

Visit a place for long enough and soon you’ll start to second-guess its rhythms, perhaps because the place has become a part of you, or you’ve become a part of it. The old man crossing the doors at 9:00 a.m. every Sunday, wearing headphones that he won’t remove all day, not even to order his beer. The middle-aged guy in rollerblades, crossing the floor from one corner to the other, drink in hand — I ignore if the punters and the bar staff have given up on him or they wouldn’t flinch even if Queen Elizabeth II crossed the door wearing platforms. The Indian man who drinks lager standing by the bar every Sunday, in a Man U top, always shouting loudly into his phone while his wife waits patiently next to him, drinking tap water. The elderly couple who sits every day at the same table, drinking wine, studiously ignoring one another, alone together.

Each one of them, of us, with all of our differences, becoming part of the furniture, adding to the history of The Rochester Castle.

Photographs by Fernando Sdrigotti

 

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Journeys On The London Underground

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JOURNEYS ON THE LONDON UNDERGROUND

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI

The London Underground is your chance to exist completely in a peace of your own design.
The gates open and you are swept into the depths. Rarely alone and most likely in a rush, rushed you will be, from A to B, in X minutes. It generally turns out fine. Except on weekends, when the London Underground — a.k.a. the Tube — is prone to pangs of unpredictability, in the guise of engineering works, that can leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere. These are the occasions when you realise the logistic feat that this public transport system is. An eternal bus journey across indecently vast London will make sure you do.
Perhaps because I don’t take the Tube too often I cherish every journey below ground level. I travel and observe and reject the refuge of books or music. In, this vivisection of London you can witness the worst and the best of this city. Long miserable faces dreading the daily commute. Heavily pregnant women standing in the middle of the carriage while those seated around them make love to their phones. The broken and the about to be broken and the breakers. The despisers and the despised and the uncaring and the creepy. But also random acts of kindness. Someone helping someone carry a suitcase up the stairs. Lovers (still in love and untainted by mortgages) sharing a morning commute to work after the night before in bed. A fellow traveler, a stranger, illicitly holding the train’s doors open for you to hop on. A friendly hand extending a napkin to someone in tears. I have seen them all, have done them all.

Alone in the multitude pressed sardine-like against you — here is your chance to exist completely in a peace of your own design. Ignored. Anonymous. In silence.

The Underground extends over 402 kilometres of tracks, is entered via 270 stations, and is used by more than 1 billion commuters every year. It dates back to 1863, when steam-powered trains started to circulate from Paddington to Farringdon, under the name of Metropolitan Railway. The need to connect other parts of the city became evident from an early moment, and soon the Tube began to stretch its tentacles. It is hard today to imagine this smokey Victorian underworld. But this was the everyday of the Tube until electric engines started to be set in motion towards the end go the 19th century.
Some of the stations currently in use date back to these seminal moments, their antique façades contrasting with modern London. Many new stations have been born since and many continue to sprout as the city expands.
Other stations have closed. Of these some have been demolished or turned into commercial real estate. Others remain frozen in time – rat-infested ghost stations visible from the road and potentially from the trains; generally unnoticed by passengers or experienced solely as a change of pressure in the air, when the train approaches their empty platforms.
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The Tube forms a big part not only of our day to day but also of London’s unconscious. A dark place where a wealth of major and minor events remains buried, occasionally resurfacing. Sometimes they don’t resurface at all in conscious form. But nevertheless they haunt us from the depths.
I think of WWII, when many Londoners escaped the nazi bombs by spending the night on the platforms and tunnels. And I think of the many who went underground to die. Bounds Green. Balham. Bank. Bethnal Green. Direct hits, crushes, subterranean death coherent with the death above.
I think of King’s Cross station in 1987, when a fire took the lives of 31 people.
I think of July 7, 2005, when dozens were butchered in a brainless terrorist attack.
I also think of the suicides — more than 50 a year. The unremembered and unrecorded, sometimes even unannounced or barely uttered: deaths delivered as euphemisms through crackling speakers — messages impossible to decode by passengers in any case unwilling to listen.

Perhaps because I don’t take the Tube too often I cherish every journey below ground level. I travel and observe and reject the refuge of books or music.

In late 2016, someone tried to violate one of our most sacred unspoken agreements: a clearly confused man commissioned badges inviting people to a “#tube_chat”; he then distributed these badges in some stations. According to his plan those wearing the badges would in this way signal their willingness to talk to strangers.
Anyone who has been in London long enough to witness the cringe-worthy spectacle of an extra-muros attempting to strike up a conversation on public transport could tell you that this was bound to fail. The backlash was huge and cruel and with reason.
Part of London’s allure is how easy it is to get lost in this city, how easy it is to be anonymous, to be able to exist unbothered. “One who knows how to live alone has nothing to fear from the dullness of London,” wrote Alexander Herzen, a Russian exile, in 1852. He couldn’t have had the Tube in mind, but it is precisely this opportunity to be alone in the multitude that makes this city unique.
And nowhere else can this be better experienced than in a promiscuous Tube carriage. Alone in the multitude pressed sardine-like against you — here is your chance to exist completely in a peace of your own design. Ignored. Anonymous. In silence. Until someone extends you that napkin and you can wipe your tears away. 

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On Museum Street Is A Camera Museum, Shop And Café Rolled Into One

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ON MUSEUM STREET IS A CAMERA MUSEUM, SHOP AND CAFÉ ROLLED INTO ONE

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI

Camera Museum hosts an interesting display tracing the history of photography from the 1800s to the present.

There have been cameras in my life for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was an amateur photographer in his youth, and from him I took an interest in this art form. He taught me a few basics and, obsessive as ever, I spent most of my late childhood playing with leaky rangefinders unearthed from some cupboard. Later, when I was 13 and it became clear that I was “serious” about this passion, I borrowed some money from my mother and bought my first SLR – a used Minolta x300s. I still own this camera; it might be a cheap model but it was my favourite camera for years. And then along came digital photography and I became lazy, just like mostly everyone else I know.

Some weeks ago, while taking some pics with my DSLR, it dawned on me that I wasn’t loving digital any more. For one thing I resented the immediacy between the moment of pressing the shutter and the moment of seeing the image – I was missing the expectation, the anxiety of finding out how your pictures come out, all the magic behind developing your own photographs. And I missed the grainy melancholia of film, the occasional scratches, all the possible accidents. But more importantly, in a moment where Instagram allows anyone to produce stunning digital photos with an entry-level smartphone, I felt I needed to take a step away from ones and zeros. Or else stop carrying around a heavy camera and just use my phone like everyone else.

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The following day I dug out my old Minolta and off I went to test it with some cheap B&W films. After being out of action for quite a long time, the shutter didn’t work very well – a proper service was due. As I was in Central London, after finishing the film and missing loads of what Cartier-Bresson would call “decisive moments”, I took it to a small café that moonlights as a camera shop (or vice versa): the Camera Museum.

The history of the Camera Museum café starts in 1999, when it opened as the Tang Café – named after the founders, the brothers Tang. One of the brothers is a camera collector, and soon a camera shop called Aperture was appended to the café.

Many people continue to refer to this café just a walk away from the British Museum as Aperture, and the old logo is still visible on the canopy outside. But this particular camera shop moved elsewhere in 2012. Since then the café has been renamed coherently with the exhibition of cameras it houses in the basement. This is an interesting display tracing the history of photography from the 1800s to the present – it can be visited for free during the normal open hours of the café.

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The current camera shop, recently relocated from the front to a room at the back, apart from repairs, specialises in Hasselblad equipment. If you don’t know much about photography it will suffice to say that these medium format cameras aren’t necessarily the most economic or popular choice. The Camera Museum, then, is a niche within a niche, and I mean this in a positive way.

On the day of my visit I took one of the tables overlooking Museum Street and had my usual short espresso while I gathered the courage to walk to the counter with my humble Minolta. There I was seen by a gentleman named Ward, who was quite impressed by the state of my old camera. He even praised the quality of the lenses, saying that they have little to envy Leicas. This was a welcome departure from the snobbery of many other camera shops in London where they can barely avoid laughing in your face when you turn up with anything but the most expensive piece of equipment.

Ward got some kind of pump from a tool box, blew air into the shutter area and explained that old cameras tend to get dusty – soon the shutter was as good as new. He checked the camera for light leaks – everything was perfect. He listened to the film advance lever and shot the camera a few more times until something made him happy. “That’s it,” he said after a few minutes, “this is ready to go!” I produced my wallet, conscious that in London everything has a price. But he refused to charge me, waving off my money saying that it had been nothing. I insisted, not many times; he declined. We shook hands and off I went, to shoot my second film.

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My visit to the Camera Museum was the perfect way to return to my first love, film photography. Later came the perfect way to end the day: playing alchemist at home, mixing liquids and substances, waiting for my films to develop during a precise amount of minutes, concocting images, summoning memories, for posterity, analogically.

I’m not sure how long this mood will last, to be fair. Very likely I’ll end up opting for the easier (and cheaper) option once again. Because at least in photography and regardless of what McLullan might say, the medium isn’t the message – it isn’t about the camera but about the eyes.

So don’t wait until impractical melancholia hits you, and drop by the Camera Museum anyway. No excuses are required to enjoy a good cup of coffee or to visit a unique London spot.

Camera Museum, 44 Museum St, London WC1A 1LY. Phone: 020 7242 8681

 
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The Past, Present And Future Of Music In London

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THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF MUSIC IN LONDON

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI

Camden’s Denmark Street, synonymous with London’s music scene since the late 1800s, is losing its influence under threat of urban redevelopment. January 1994, winter. A kid of 16 and his mother walk in Central London, chasing an image; the place of an image; a fragment of a place in an image, to be more precise. They are lost. It is easy to get lost in 1994 – this is way before smartphones and knowing one’s location 24/7. These are days of pocket A to Zs, crooked geographical aids cluttered with miniature street names – instruments not of navigation but to better get lost. At some point it begins to snow, confirming the falsity of the truism perpetuated by Londoners that it never snows in their city. They walk for quite a while, until somehow, at some point, the place of the image is found. The kid poses for a picture; the mother presses the shutter. And the picture comes reasonably well; no head nor feet cut out. Needless to say, I am this kid. This was my first trip to London, and I was madly into music. Most of this trip was spent chasing sound and image with the patience and dedication of a bounty hunter. Day-long incursions into what was the monumental Tower Records, back then in Piccadilly Circus. Afternoons spent spotting music venues or the places where they used to stand. Days of discovering this or that corner featured in a music video or album cover. Much to my mother’s detriment, most of our holiday was spent getting embedded in the musical aura of this city. On this particularly cold winter day I was after a simple piece of urban furniture: an unremarkable railing outside of a music shop. I had seen a photo in a book about the Sex Pistols: young faux rebels, one of them — I forget which one — leaning against the railing. And the only thing I knew was that the picture had been taken in London’s Tin Pan Alley. The book and the original photograph of the band has long since disappeared from my life and, seemingly, from history – I can’t even find this image online. The road where both pictures were taken is still there but is also threatened by oblivion. denmark street Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, is in the central district of London known as St. Giles, a walk away from Soho, Chinatown, Shaftesbury Avenue and its theatres, Oxford Street and the hordes of shoppers. The nickname links back to New York. Like the place in Manhattan – and precisely for that reason – London’s Tin Pan Alley was the city’s favoured spot for music publishers since the 1890s. From the 1920s onwards it became a popular location for music shops first and for independent recording studios and music venues later. The mythical Regent Sound Studios, for example, occupied number 4, from the late ’50s until the late ’60s. Many of the big names of British music stopped by Regent Sounds Studios: The Rolling Stones (who recorded their first LP here), Elton John, The Beatles, The Who, Genesis and Tom Jones, to name just a few. denmark street Many other names not alien to musical stardom are connected one way or the other to London’s Tin Pan Alley. Rumour has it that David Bowie use to crash on the street, in a camper van; a more believable story has him hanging around in the local cafés with his pal Marc Bolan, of T Rex fame, concocting killer hairdos and musical revolution in high-heeled boots. Jeff Buckley and Adele released their soporific wails and pretty much launched their careers from the 12 Bar, which, until its recent closure, was one of London’s indie stalwarts. Bob Marley bought his first guitar in one of the local shops. And like him, many of the most renowned guitarists in the UK and the world patronised and continue to patronise the now dwindling shops in the street. Some musicians took permanent residence on this road. Perhaps the most famous neighbours were the Sex Pistols, who used to live, rehearse and record in number 6, a couple of doors away from Regent Sound Studios and the handrail of my story. Their former residence was granted Grade II* Listed Status in March 2016, thanks to the graffiti Johnny Rotten and his gang left on the walls. The once despised and banned band is now perfectly respectable, its infantile doodles celebrated and protected by law. An irony that pretty much guarantees number 6 will stay in its current form for years to come. denmark street Denmark Street has been under threat for some few years. The redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road Station — in order to accommodate the new Crossrail – has dramatically altered the area. Many old buildings have been knocked down in the surrounding streets, new ones have sprouted up, and this former grimy London spot – grimy enough to serve as the setting of Hogarth’s Gin Lane – is beginning to look coiffed up. And coiffed up in London means higher rents. Some music shops and places like the legendary 12 Bar have either closed down or moved elsewhere. Others remain, quite heroically, keeping the myth of London’s Tin Pan Alley alive. A couple of days ago I took my daughter to Denmark Street and, after window-shopping guitars for a while, I photographed her holding the same railing I had held in 1994. There was something beautiful in seeing her pose for the camera in the same way I had – it was of course about us, about sharing my love for music with my kid. It was also about Denmark Street still being there, about its uneven fight against the urban amnesia known as regeneration. Regent Sounds Studios, 4 Denmark Street, London WC2H 8LP. Phone: 020 7379 6111. Open from: M-Sat 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sun 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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Farringdon-band

Finding An Image Of Happiness In Farringdon

SPACEEXPERIENCEPEOPLEFOOD + DRINKVIDEO 

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FINDING  IN AN IMAGE OF HAPPINESS IN FARRINGDON

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI

Fernando Sdrigotti explores Farringdon and ponders the subjectivity and elusiveness of an image of happiness.

In the opening moments of Sans Soleil French filmmaker Chris Marker meditates upon what he calls “an image of happiness”: three blond children staring at the camera while walking away from it, in a path in a rural part of Iceland, in 1965. These seconds of grainy footage are among the most evocative in this “documentary” stitched together with the memories that fictional cameraman Sandor Krasna (a stand-in for Marker) has compiled over decades during his trips around the world. The beauty of these brief moments is nevertheless threatened by the irruption of a black screen, introduced as a concession to the difficulty of linking such a strong and subjective image to others: “One day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black,” Krasna/Marker claims through the narrator. The trope of the Icelandic kids comes back later in the film, when we learn that their village has been destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1973.

Writing about Sans Soleil is of course beyond the scope of a piece about London, a place that, for better or worse, does not feature in Marker’s 1983 film. I could justify this digression by claiming that my whole literary career has been the history of someone writing about Sans Soleil while pretending to write about something else – so strong has been the impression this film has left on me since the first time I chanced upon it. Nevertheless, I would like to think I am writing about this film with a good reason. For here I want to summon an image of happiness, one of a completely different kind from – yet as elusive as – that of the Icelandic kids on that desolate road 51 years ago.

Devoid of all history, of all consequences, of all morality, with no past and no future. Cup of Tea’s happiness: a slice of the world, a brief moment in time isolated from everything else.

Back in October 2010 I spent a few hours taking pictures with an old rangefinder down Farringdon, an area of London at that time under intense renovation due to the works being carried out to revamp the local tube station. There was a lot going on in Farringdon: cranes; broken signs (mementos to a disappearing city); local workers unaware of my camera; more cranes; the now gone entrance to the old tube station; passersby, men and women on their way to work or on their way to nowhere; cranes, more cranes, cranes everywhere.

The light was particularly beautiful that cold morning. An uncommon light in London that invited me to go on in the hope I would get more than a handful of good shots. After walking around Farringdon for an hour or so I ended up in Smithfield, the site of a Victorian-era meat market. The market, which has provided mostly to local butchers, restaurants and the occasionally meat-craving insomniac since the 1860s, was already closed – it opens at 2 a.m. and goes until mid-morning. Instead of shooting the empty central market, a stunning building I had already photographed many times before, I ended up in a corner known as West Poultry Avenue, using my final three shots not on feathered animals but on shadows and walls. And soon I started to make my way home, back then just a mile or so north in Clerkenwell.

Upon reaching the Barclays at the corner of Cowcross and St. John streets, I noticed one of the local junkies moving in my direction. The guy – lanky and with a shaven head – was known as “Cup of Tea” in the Clerkenwell and Farringdon areas, thanks to his preferred begging line. As I was getting closer to him (and getting ready for the verbal exchange that would follow) I noticed a flashing light and something poking out from the cash point Cup of Tea was then walking past. He noticed it as well, the wad of notes hanging indecently from the cash dispenser, forgotten by some unheeding mind and duly ignored by all the other unheeding minds passing by. But not by Cup of Tea, who lounged into the money smiling from ear to ear and pocketed it in a single agile movement, then walked quickly round the corner, laughing aloud and looking back in disbelief before disappearing towards Moorgate.

I do not know exactly how much money there was on the wad (it looked like a good couple of hundred pounds) or whether the money meant a radical change of life for him or more of the same tea abuse. But for these brief moments, there was pure happiness there. Devoid of all history, of all consequences, of all morality, with no past and no future. Cup of Tea’s happiness: a slice of the world, a brief moment in time isolated from everything else. Unrecorded. Unseen but for me and the bank’s CCTV cameras.

Perhaps these words are a failed but hopeful attempt to link this image with the other images in my roll, to make this vanished moment come to presence through the written word. Or perhaps these words are my version of Marker’s black screen, my own despondent way of conceding that an image of happiness is always by necessity subjective, elusive and, like all images, whether recorded or not, an image of loss.

Smithfield Market, 225, Central Markets, London EC1A 9LH

 
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Londonium-band

Deciphering London

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DECIPHERING LONDON

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI

What is London but an ungraspable collective hallucination we all dream together, asks Fernando Sdrigotti.

“The true identity of London is its absence, as a city it no longer exists…”

London, Patrick Keiller, 1992

You have to come to London to figure out how to leave it behind. Like marrying your high-school sweetheart, so that you can get over her, you need to be in this old, grey and thankless city to at least begin to move away from its sphere of influence. It is the cross borne by many a peripheral existence, this pull towards the centre. To go after culture, money, stability, any or all of them. So at the end, if you are lucky enough, you reach some core and realise that it wasn’t there either, that life is a succession of things and places that make no sense at all.

If you are in London there is a 90 per cent chance you aren’t from around here and the centripetal forces of history (or money, or boredom) pulled you to this city. Perhaps, like me, you grew up in a provincial town in the Global South. Perhaps you were born just some miles away from the Bells of What-have-you. If you were actually born here it is most likely we have never bumped into one another — peaceful co-existence in London is granted by our ability to edit and cancel people at will.

But hardly any beginning starts here. That is the cross London bears — almost everything is in transit in this city. Most of us come here to mourn our own cultures from a smug vantage point, and London’s cold indifference guarantees we will succeed at this. At least at the mourning.

As soon as you arrive in London you start an impossible process of departure. Impossible, for how could you ever fully depart from a city to which you never fully arrive?

London was for me an imported Promised Land, a line of flight, a metropolis inhabited by shoe-gazing Brits with a sensitivity vibrating on the same wavelength as mine.

What is London but an ungraspable collective hallucination we all dream together? A city that reinvents itself anew every day. A city that, in its greedy and megalomaniac self-fabulation, constantly erases itself in order to be rewritten. By itself, of course. By who else?

Until the day when there is nobody left to read the writing, London will continue to edit, rewrite and delete this or that other part. One day it will cross us all out, even those of us still able to pay our rents: Londoners.

What would the shape of post-human London be? What would London be but a melancholic and slightly schizophrenic lump of concrete with parks?

Chrissie Hynde crossing Chelsea Bridge in 1986, worried about someone getting her wrong. Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Nicky Headon and Paul Simonon, down Battersea Park in 1979, singing of nuclear errors on a rainy night. The London of “West End Girls”: the aerial shots, the terminals, the young and happy drunks, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, beautiful and taciturn and hip before hipsters turned up and moved to Shoreditch to unleash The Organicalypse. Or the London of “Walking on Sunshine”: a grey London of Tower Bridge and the Docklands, probably dreamed by an American mind. Or the grey and Thatcherite London of “Ghost Town” — so close to London today. And I could go on.

My London is the result of an early abuse of ’70s and ’80s British popular culture: imported photography books, late night MTV Classic shows, a collection of 900 CDs by the age of 14 — all the moderate privileges of being a middle class Argentine kid (at a time when the overinflated national currency allowed overseas pleasures). I hallucinated my London in a suburban home in humid Rosario, zapping a remote control and flicking through the pages of mags I could barely understand. London was for me an imported Promised Land, a line of flight, a metropolis inhabited by shoe-gazing Brits with a sensitivity vibrating on the same wavelength as mine. This is the London that brought me to London and that I could never find in London.

Sometimes I wish I had already arrived and departed. Other times I hope our meeting will never take place, that the spell will persist, because I have never left the place where this nonsense started. When I get homesick, I not only get homesick for my home but for the idea of London I created while I was there. London, in the meantime, couldn’t care less. Who knows what London thinks. Who knows where London really is.

I don’t.

 

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Dusk To Dawn In Neverwhere

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DUSK TO DAWN IN NEVERWHERE

WORDS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

Fernando Sdrigotti battles insomnia – and discovers London by night – on his midnight walks near Liverpool Street. 

Some of these rambles led me to great distances… And sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and headlands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphinx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters, and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen.

Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater

In 2002 I went through an insomniac phase. It’s easy to lose sleep in London, particularly when the realisation hits you that you are completely alone in this city, miles away from your family, and that if something happened to you it would take weeks before anyone took notice. Tales of Londoners rotting away for several months, their tellies still flashing when a council employee kicks the door open aren’t particularly alien to this city. It’s the price one pays for anonymity and the freedom anonymity entails.

Quickly the sleepless nights dragged into weeks and the weeks into months. After trying every remedy known to humankind, I decided to make use of my inability to sleep — at that time coinciding with an inability to work — and made it a habit of setting off for long late ramblings through London. I would leave home after midnight, jump on an N242 from Shoreditch to Tottenham Court Road and – after a short bus ride – walk around Liverpool Street Station and Bank, tracing wanton trajectories round the Square Mile.

Insomnia is a war of attrition: either by winning or losing it you are guaranteed to go back to sleep at some point.

Although I didn’t find any answers walking at night I did spot the occasional fox cutting the night into who knows what wild spot in the middle of the city. And I got to know some interesting alleys and cul de sacs — aberrant slits in a space otherwise measured and ordered to the utmost of its commercial possibilities. I also saw very odd things: men in shorts and tuxedos running wild with their backpacks; a girl shouting abuse at a postbox for at least 20 minutes. I once even found a £50 note rolled into a cylinder. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a £50 note again since that fateful night, nor have I owned the means to go through life rolling notes into cylinders.

For all the hectic activity during the day, there are few places to take refuge after hours round the Square Mile. Save for a café across the road from Liverpool Street — a haunt of cabbies, coppers and wannabe late night poets (like me) — I didn’t find any other place open after midnight. Back in 2002 this place was called Ponti’s; it has since been renamed into something equally unremarkable. I did plenty of reading and writing at Ponti’s. There wasn’t anything interesting to drink there — something had to be done until nodding off time, a time that would normally find me on the bus home (luckily the end of the line wasn’t too far away from my room).

It was at Ponti’s that I first read Confessions of an English Opium Eater. It was there that I first flicked through the pages of Thomas Burke’s Nights in Town and Alexander Herzen’s Memoirs. It is by reading these fundamental — albeit rather conservative — texts about London, and by trying to jot your own insomniac ideas about this city, that you realise how little has actually changed in the last 200 years or so, particularly with regards to the city at night, its rhythms, its plights and sufferings. Yes, London looks radically different, but something of its synergy persists and survives people, business, money and government. It is easy to get lost in London. It is easy to despair, to lose one’s plot. These things don’t seem to change — and they both repel and attract us Londoners.

I would leave home after midnight, jump on an N242 from Shoreditch to Tottenham Court Road and – after a short bus ride – walk around Liverpool Street Station and Bank, tracing wanton trajectories round the Square Mile.

Insomnia is a war of attrition: either by winning or losing it you are guaranteed to go back to sleep at some point. I don’t remember now why or how I went back to sleep but I suspect long shifts of bar work six to seven days a week contributed to bringing me back to the arms of Morpheus. Beyond the romantic aura of these words, I don’t miss London at night. I don’t miss insomnia. I don’t miss the feeling of walking aimlessly, waiting for something to happen. The unexpected happens when you are closed to it, when you aren’t searching for anything. Probably while you are in bed. Or watching the telly. It will certainly take you from behind, when you have forgotten the never-ending mass of concrete and organic matter that beats all around – that mammoth called London.

Liverpool Street, London EC2M 7QH

 

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Brexit_005

Brexit Blues In London

SPACE
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PEOPLE
FOOD + DRINK
VIDEO

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BREXIT BLUES IN LONDON

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI

I woke up around 3:30am to learn the world around me had changed. What by all accounts seemed impossible had become true: Britain had decided to pull back the drawbridge from Europe. A part of Britain but not London. And certainly not my London: my borough – Hackney – was the place with the biggest percentage of “remain” votes in the country, 78.5 per cent. If living elsewhere in the UK had always seemed unlikely, since the early morning of June 24 it is for me unthinkable.

The destruction of the country’s industrial infrastructure since the 1970s, the unequal distribution of wealth between London and the rest of the country, years of austerity and cuts, in conjunction with the reactionary migrant-bashing propaganda constantly excreted by a large part of the British media, coalesced on June 23 to convince 52 per cent of the voting public to cast a ballot against their own interests. The European Union is far from a charitable organisation – it is by all means an instrument of neoliberalism. But it also provides a framework to keep the much more unhinged neoliberal forces of British conservatism at bay – Britain isn’t undergoing a socialist experiment, after all. The EU also guarantees the free movement of its citizens, granting opportunities to impoverished Europeans who can seek a better future elsewhere. We can question the reasons that force people to move in the first place and the discriminatory nature of this idea of freedom so dependant on an abstract document – a passport. But we can’t ignore the experience of those already displaced. Sadly this is exactly what is going right now, with three million EU migrants currently in limbo, bargaining chips in what will be a thorny negotiation with the continent.

It is mourning for feeling comfortable in the place we call home. And it is mourning for the freedom to move, for the freedom to decide where to live, where to spend one’s life.

The situation still unfolding. The long-term consequences of this national tantrum are hard to guess. But at the time of writing, just 10 days later, both main parties are deeply immersed in their own crises and an economic debacle is looming. Nevertheless, the worst aspect of Britain’s bravado, I would argue, is that it has legitimised and empowered racists and xenophobes of all persuasions: in the week following June 23, racist and xenophobic attacks increased a fivefold, according to The Huffington Post. There have been cases reported in London but these sentiments run stronger beyond the M25, particularly in areas where many years of austerity have been felt much more strongly.

In this climate, talking to neighbours and people I know is a disheartening experience. Londoners, my Londoners – migrants from Europe and elsewhere and those Brits who welcome this cosmopolitanism – seem incapable of getting over Brexit. It feels like mourning.

But it isn’t mourning for croissants and weekend incursions into the continent, as many in the pseudo-leftist commentariat would want to see it (from behind the safety of their British passports). It is mourning for feeling comfortable in the place we call home. And it is mourning for the freedom to move, for the freedom to decide where to live, where to spend one’s life. Coming from South America, having experienced the restrictions that the wrong passport imposes on a person, I am deeply sensitive to this.

In a collective piece about the referendum published by 3:AM Magazine, the great Hungarian/British poet George Szirtes summed up the future of the UK with this words: “Smaller, meaner, frailer, poorer, but strutting about our own bunker”. I can’t help feeling he got it right, that the world around us is getting smaller and meaner.

Hopefully the storm will pass this country will continue to be the place it was a few weeks ago. Never an utopia. But not an insular bunker either.