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London Exotica

November 6, 2007

This post is part of an irregular series in which I try to speak around the subject of an item that’s been given to me. I will produce these posts at the same rate at which I’m given items, you know…

I was recently given this record, found by Ginny in one of Toronto’s Value Village stores. Being a piece of kitsch that speaks about several of my own particular interests, I have to say it was a fine selection for salvation from the bargain bin. The LP, a recording of cockney pub songs made for distribution overseas, has an obvious place in all sorts of overlapping discussions — about the point at which folk art becomes commercial kitsch; or about (imagined) global travel and regional identity; or even about an “alternative sixties”, in which London was not a swinging centre of fashion, but a destination for those seeking a simulacrum of Old Europe, pre-rock ‘n’ roll, pre-war.

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Belonging to Cavalier Records’ “Destination” series in the mid-sixties, Destination London: Sing Along in a London Pub was clearly designed for listeners who hadn’t been, and were unlikely to ever go, to London: “Hearing these infectious melodies sung so authentically by Kim Cordell would warm the hearts of anyone, even if they had never been to London”, end the notes on the back of the sleeve. Although there does also seem to be an intended appeal to buyers who might aspire to cosmopolitanism they couldn’t otherwise afford — the white label on the front is a ticket that can be filled out and sent off for a chance to win a week for two at the 1967 Expo in Montreal.

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The London I first knew was an imagined London, arrived at through song.

I grew up in Bradford, and had no conscious engagement with London, real or conceptual, until the age of about six or seven. It was at this age, as a pupil at Wellington First School, that I sat sore-arsed in school assemblies on the floor of a hall, whilst a teacher with probable hippie roots played the guitar, and taught us to sing along, following words hand-written on transparent acetate and projected dimly onto the wall. I think this was the beginning of “multi-faith” school assemblies, which in this case meant an off-balance mix of milder hymns and pop / folk songs. Anyway, one of the teacher’s favourites was Streets of London, Ralph McTell’s sanctimonious commercial folk song. You can see a video of Ralph singing the song, sitting weirdly under a huge sign that says “Disco”, here. The chorus goes, “How can you tell me you’re lonely, and say for you the sun don’t shine? / Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London — I’ll show you something that’ll make you change your mind.” And let me tell you that this sounds much better when sung by sixty tone-deaf children between the ages of six and nine.

Now, remember that this was my imagination’s first encounter with London. You can guess what happened — in my childhood brain, the opposing sides of north-south divide somehow got turned around. Here I was, sitting in a school in Bradford in the late-eighties, thinking “thank fuck I don’t live anywhere near London!”. Yes, I know the song is really about specific ruined corners of the capital (mostly the same parts that are glamourised / patronised on the Destination London record, naturally), but such a distinction was lost on me. I spent most of my childhood believing my nation’s capital to be a vast wasteland with scraps of old newspapers blowing down its cold empty streets. Maybe it was. I was never there.

I wonder what would have happened if I’d been familiar with David Bowie’s The London Boys at that age?

Wasteland or not, my continued absence from London allowed the city to grow exotic.

I felt alright in the knowledge that I was normal, and London was weird. I see now that my perspective was similar to that of the characters in some of the music hall numbers I’ve been listening through recently. A common theme in music hall songs is the journey to London by a naive northerner: In “John Willie Come On”, by George Formby Sr., the protagonist John Willie holidays in London with his wife, who repeatedly ushers him away from a variety of picaresque encounters with the feminine charms of the capital by uttering the four words of the song’s title; in Charlie Higgins’s “All Poshed Up With My Daisies in My Hand”, the singing stage-northerner tells about his attempts to “complete” London with his scruffy charm: “There’s Nelson on his monument, and further down the Strand / You’ll find me in a dustbin with me daisies in me hand”.

Anyway, I didn’t get to charm London myself until I was just turned eighteen, and on the cusp of becoming educated and un-naive. Of course that’s not true, but the facts might suggest as much — my first trip to London was brought about by my submitting a prize-winning essay to the Thomas Hardy Society, in my final year of A-level study, which meant that I was asked to go and receive my cash prize at the Society’s annual gathering. The involvement of Thomas Hardy in all of this is a bit of a red herring, even though he himself was a desperate provincial, with an uneasy relationship with the capital. No, in fact, I didn’t like Thomas Hardy all that much, even then (when I was more miserable) — I was only writing about Hardy because I wanted the money. But I managed to sneak in something truer to my actual interests by making my essay a comparative analysis of Hardy and Algernon Charles Swinburne, the preposterous proto-decadent red headed masochist and mediocre poet.

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You see, this was the time when I was surrounding myself with the objects of Decadence, Symbolism, and other late-nineteenth century curiosities. In fact, once I’d had my picture taken with the Thomas Hardy people (fucking perverts, each and every one of them) and gone off with the cheque, I went straight to the Barbican to see an exhibition called The Wilde Years which brought together a whole world of Wilde-related art to mark the centenary of his death.

And this means that as a newly qualified aficionado of Decadence and dandyism (I looked a bit like Swinburne in the picture above, actually) — I was fully acquainted with J.-K. Huysmans’s A rebours, and the passage in that special book in which the anti-hero Des Esseintes prepares himself for a rare journey away from his meticulously-designed home, to visit London. Des Esseintes, famously, decides not to catch his train, reasoning that “I’ve seen and felt all that I wanted to see and feel. I’ve been steeped in English life ever since I left home, and it would be madness to risk spoiling such unforgettable experiences by a clumsy change of locality.” So Des Esseintes becomes an prototype of the armchair traveler, a pioneering explorer of a virtual world, and we are only now coming to realise the true significance of his decision. And Huysmans is a father to the digital universe, because he shows us the multiple ways in which one can split cosmopolitanism. At the end of this, you have a world:

We are not cosmopolitans, but we have restless imaginations.
We said and heard nothing authentic, but it was still real life.
We are not lonely, and we might never be.

This is the kind of traveling that I more often find myself doing… I visit the idea of London very frequently. BUT!!! I’m also happy to say that I’ll be in London, in body, at some point around Christmas.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather permalink
    November 7, 2007 11:15 pm

    Is ‘Bicycle built for two’ on that there record?

  2. Mat permalink
    November 12, 2007 6:43 am

    And very welcome in London you are too.

    Seiriol’s recently got involved with a cabaret group called Underbling and Val, who offer commercial clients a cockney knees up. Initially they sing the kind of songs celebrated in that there record of thine; as the evening wears on they sing songs more fitting to everyone’s hazy sense of “authentic London” – like the music from only fools and horses or the theme from minder. I’m not sure I approve of all this business but it was beter than when Damon Albarn turned up on stage at the end of the evening with his own brand new children’s choir.

  3. November 12, 2007 6:47 pm

    It’s interesting to know that that kind of thing goes on. In Gordon Burn’s novel The North of England Home Service, a retired Geordie boxer runs a night club where travelling businessmen from the south can get an authentic northern experience, with a wash-day theme — bloomers hung out on the line, flat caps and singing Blaydon Races, etc… but I thought all was just a fanciful exaggeration.

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