Saturday, 18 April 2015

Ella Leya - The Orphan Sky, a brilliant first novel


One of the hits of this year's Jewish book week, Ella Leya is an accomplished musician playing both jazz and classical music. The Orphan Sky is an excellent first novel capturing the complicated manoeuvrings of life in the final decade of the Soviet Union through the experiences of Leila Badalbeili, a talented young pianist from Baku, Azerbaijan.

The book captures the atmosphere of Baku's old city with its narrow lanes, sites and smells, and most of all its iconic Maiden Tower. The Tower is the source of many stories, some of which overlap with Leila's own experiences as she navigates her way through her teenage years, discovering art, music and even love - much of which is forbidden during the Soviet period in which the story is set. 

Leila is a committed member of the Komsomol, the Communist youth organisation, but becomes disillusioned after meeting Tahir, a young man from the once prominent Mukhtarov family who introduces her to a world beyond that permitted by the authorities. Gradually, she begins to see and understand the deceit, corruption and hypocrisy inherent in the Soviet regime with party officials lining their own pockets whilst others live in poverty. This extends all the way to her beloved father, who moves in the upper levels of Soviet Azeri society, and who she realises is not above receiving bribes in return for favours. Her awareness of how deceitful those in authority are grows until she discovers her father's ultimate betrayal, which I won't reveal here (!), but which results in a series of catastrophic events leading all the way to the final denouement and a kind of deliverance.

The Orphan Sky has a wonderful cast of characters. Our heroine Leila wins our support, respect and sympathy but, happily, is no angel herself, making mistakes and compromises as she struggles between the urge to survive and the desire not to compromise herself. Her best friend Almaz is both survivor and victim whilst Sonia, her mother, is a brilliant surgeon but turns a blind eye to her husband's indiscretions even when they come very close to home. I especially liked her music teacher, Professor Sultan-zade, initially drawn as a cold, stern character but who is developed through the course of the story as considered, capable and eminently human and who also has emotions. The female characters demonstrate very clearly the position of many women in Soviet society who had to live up to the requirements of both the regime and more traditional roles assigned to women in some cultures and communities. 

I visited Azerbaijan in 2012 and The Orphan Sky took me back there, especially to Icheri Sheher, the old city of Baku. Indeed, it made me want to visit again. Ella Leya's love for music is displayed throughout the book, through her descriptions of Leila's performances, immersing the reader in emotional journeys through pieces by Mozart and Rachmaninov using references to art, the elements and to the music of Billie Holiday in order to convey her feelings. This is no surprise given her own jazz background and that rhere is a bit of a jazz tradition in Azerbaijan.  During the Soviet period it was seen as the music of dissent. The great Azerbaijani jazz pianist Vagif Mustafazade who suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime is now revered and his former home is a museum. The book also contains many references to traditional Azeri poems and lyrics and to the traditional Azeri mugham form of music. 

Ella Leya was born in Baku and received asylum in the United States in 1990. She lives between Laguna beach in california and London-  where she is the wife of a rabbi! You can find out more about her music here.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Picture post 41 - Middlesbrough's Iconic Transporter Bridge


Middlesbrough's transporter bridge is one of just three of its kind remaining in the UK and is both a much loved iconic image of the town and a reminder of the area's industrial past.  

The idea for a bridge was first mooted in 1872 by one Charles Smith, manager of the Hartlepool Iron Works, who suggested a scheme to Middlesbrough Corporation. His idea was rejected and it was not until 1911 that the bridge was built as a result of an Act of Parliament passed in 1907. It cost 68,026 pounds, six shillings and eight pence to build which translates to about 6,300,000 pounds today. Construction was completed by Sir William Arrol and Co. of Glasgow using steel made by local company Dorman Long (forerunners of British Steel) and replaced ferry services across the river. Local labour employed at Dorman Long also produced the steel used to construct the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The foundation stones were laid by Mayor of Middlesbrough Thomas Gibson-Poole and Alderman Joseph McLauchlan, whilst the towns citizens turned out in huge numbers to welcome Prince Albert of Connaught on 17th October 1911 when he came to open the bridge.

The bridge is 851 feet long - the longest remaining transporter bridge in the world. The cantilever construction has three main bridge parts and a gondola which runs on a wheel and rail system 160 feet above the Tees. The transporter has seen some drama over the years. It was hit by a bomb in the Second World War, whilst in 1953, the gondola became stuck half way across and was lashed by gale force winds that brought the river to within inches of the platform. It has also featured in films and TV series including Billy Elliot and the Boys from the Backstuff, whilst scenes of its apparent dismantling and transportation to Arizona during Auf Wiedersehen Pet resulted in calls from worried citizens  to the Council, protesting the seeming loss. The TV company had to include a clarification at the end of the series that the scenes were purely fictional! A real drama occurred in 1974 when actor Terry Scott thought he was crossing a toll bridge and drove off the edge, landing in the safety netting below - and I just about remember this from the local newspaper - the Evening Gazette

The bridge straddles the river Tees between the former St. Hilda's area of Middlesbrough and Port Clarence on the Stockton-on-Tees side of the river. St. Hilda's was home to a range of industries connected to the docks as well as to a residential community. Almost all of both are now gone, cleared by the demolition ball over a number of years with only a few exceptions -  two pubs (one derelict), the old dock clock and the former town hall, the latter of which was famously painted by L.S. Lowry in 1959. Referred to as "over the border" due to being on the riverside of the railway line, St. Hilda's had a reputation for being a bit scary during my younger days as well as being a bit risqué due to the (possibly assumed) activities that took place in some of the pubs! 

The area has been renamed "Middlehaven" and is now home to part of the town's university campus, it's college and Middlesbrough FC's stadium. There are also plans to redevelop the area with housing, shops and cafes, re-connecting the town to the river and bringing new life to this historic area. I like the idea of bringing it back to life - but its a shame that so much of what was there before has gone. The transporter bridge was given grade II* listed status in 1983, protecting it from a similar fate, but its real protection comes from its continued use and more importantly from the attachment that locals continue to feel for this example of engineering ingenuity.




The transporter bridge seen through the remaining wall of the former salt works.
You might also like Picture Post 28 - Middlesbrough Empire Palace of Varieties and Memories of Middlesbrough and days long gone

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Lisbon art deco - three cinemas, a church and some communists!

I planned to visit Lisbon in 2001 but for various reasons wasn't able to go. It took me until this year to get there and now I can't believe I waited so long. The city has an easy, relaxed atmosphere as well as some of  Europe's most beautiful art deco and modernist buildings. This came as a surprise as Lisbon does not immediately spring to mind when thinking about art deco in Europe. The Portuguese version of this architectural style is one of Europe's best kept architectural secrets.

Eden Theatre, Praca dos Restauradores
As with many cities, Lisbon boast a number of cinemas in the style, some of which now serve other functions whilst retaining some of their original features. The most prominent of the city's art deco cinemas is the former Eden Theatre on Praca dos Restauradores. Designed by Cassiano Branco and Carlo Florencio Dias, it opened in 1931. Branco is a name to which we will return. The cinema had a large, double tiered hall which, sadly, was demolished in 2001 when the building was converted into an apartment hotel. It had ceased to operate as a cinema in 1989 but had a brief moment of glory in 1991 when part of Wim Wenders' Until the End of The World was filmed there. 

There have also been some changes to the exterior as two enormous film poster boards were removed to open up the front and to reveal an atrium at the upper levels. The ground floor originally housed shops with stairways leading to the first floor where the auditorium was located but now appears to be empty. Despite this, the Eden still cuts an impressive figure at the very heart of Lisbon. 

Eden Theatre, Praca dos Restauradores
Teatro Cinearte at Largo dos Santos 2 operated as a cinema from 1938 to 1981 when it closed. Nine years later, the building reopened under the management of Shack - a theatre company. Shack added a second room in 1993, so as with the Eden, the interior is not as it was originally designed. 

Standing in a quiet square and opposite a small park, it is a striking example of Portuguese art deco with its portholes, glass bricked stairwell, stylised lettering, ocean liner curves and of course, its green facade. Located between the popular waterfront area of Belem and Baixa in the historical centre, it is a little off the beaten track for tourists but is well worth a bit of a walk from one or the other or if its too hot for that, a cheap taxi ride from the centre.

The Cinearte was designed by Lisbon born architect Raul Rodrigues Lima who was responsible for a number of cinemas in Portugal including the art deco influenced cinemas, Cinema Messias in Aveiro and Cinema Micaelense in San Miguel in the Azores. He later went on to work in the more classical influenced "Portuguese Smooth" style that became popular in the 1950's.

Teatro Cinearte, Largo dos Santos
Teatro Cinearte, Largo dos Santos
Teatro Cinearte, Largo dos Santos
Espaco Espelho d'Agua
One of the best things about traveling is the thrill of stumbling upon places you didn't know about. I had this experience in Belem after visiting some of the better known tourist sites when strolling along the waterfront I came across the absolutely stunning Espaco Espelho d'Agua, a huge modernist single storey structure built in 1940 for the Portuguese World Exhibition. Designed by architect Antonio Lino, the Espaco is today an arts centre with a cafe and restaurant set in what appears to be a former dock. 

The white exterior glimmered in the bright Portuguese sunshine and of course I couldn't resist sampling the cafe's coffee and ice cream whilst admiring the building's many deco and modernist features. The clean white exterior is decorated with fins, portholes, speed lines and protruding pillars whilst a minimalist approach has been taken to decorating the interior - with the exception of more portholes around the light fittings! It was not hard to imagine the Espaco being frequented by fleeing artists, musicians, writers and other refugees from central Europe during the 1940's, together with the more fashionable elements of Portuguese society. A real find.

Espaco Espelho d'Agua
Espaco Espelho d'Agua
My next stop is back in the centre of the city on the Avenida Liberdade, perhaps the glitziest street in Lisbon and home to Prada, Armani, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. It is also home to an art deco masterpiece,  the Hotel Vitoria, at number 170. This marble clad beauty completed in 1936 is the work of Cassiano Branco who we met earlier. It has quite a history. Originally built as an apartment block, it was expanded and transformed into a hotel during the Second World War, when it was used as a base by spies of Nazi Germany. Due to Portugal's official neutrality during the war, spies from both sides frequented the city, setting up home and base in various hotels and spending time listening in to conversations in cafes and hotels, shadowing some of the refugees mentioned earlier and in some cases working as double agents. There is an excellent book on this period, Lisbon, War in the Shadows in the City of Light 1939-45  by Neil Lochery, which is well worth a read.

Hotel Vitoria, Avendida de Liberdade
Back to Hotel Vitoria. Its architectural features are as interesting as its history. Most impressive is its column of circular balconies which reaches to all six levels, the uppermost sheltered by a disc resembling an umbrella or canopy. The roof terrace, sadly not open to the public has a pergola which may seem a little bourgeois to the current occupants - the Communist Party of Portugal! The impressive balconies are in stark contrast to the adjoining much flatter facade topped by a concave box. Hotel Vitoria is one of the architect's greatest achievements and it is surprising that he is little known outside of Portugal.

Branco had an interesting career. Born in Lisbon in 1897, he attended the School of Fine Arts but became disenchanted and left after two years to undertake a more technical and industrial education as well as helping his father to run a small factory and working in a bank. During the 1920's he visited Amsterdam and Brussels and attended the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris. Perhaps inspired by the new styles seen on his travels, he returned to the Lisbon School of Fine Arts and completed his architectural training in 1927.

Interested in politics, he was an outspoken critic of the Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, which resulted in him being excluded from large scale official commissions. However, this does not seem to have affected his ability to work too much as both the Eden and Hotel Vitoria demonstrate. He also designed buildings in Porto, Cascais and Costa da Caparica.

Hotel Vitoria, Avendida de Liberdade
Hotel Vitoria, Avendida de Liberdade
Branco was also responsible for some residential blocks, including the huge apartment building at Rua Nova de sao Mamedy 3-7, built in 1937 with shops on the ground floor and  flats above. The block features some great balconies with circular ends on each side of the facade and a flatter central panel with a single fin. Still in use as a residential block, the ground floor shops have now been replaced by a car park. The street has a number of other interesting buildings from this period, not exactly modernist or deco but with a look none the less.

Apartment building, Rua de sao Mamedy
The subtitle of this post refers to three cinemas and the third of them is the former Condes Cinema at Avenida de Liberdade 2. Completed a little later than its near neighbours, it opened in 1951 and operated until the 1990's when it closed. it then stood empty for a while before (sadly) the interior was almost entirely ripped out and Lisbon's branch of the Hard Rock Cafe was opened in 2003. Built on the site of an earlier theatre, it was designed by architect Raul Tojal in a simpler style than the cinemas of Branco and Rodrigues Lima.  It has retained its exterior features, which have been carefully restored, including the mythical figures on the front curve. Tojal was also responsible for the interior of Cafe Nicola, opened in 1929 in Rossio Square and still serving coffee today. Cafe Nicola is one of many cafes allegedly frequented by the greta Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa.

Condes Cinema, Avenida de Liberdade
So that's the cinemas and the communists dealt with, but what of the church? Lisbon has a single modernist church, Nossa Senhora do Rosario de Fatima, completed in 1938 and designed by Porfiro Pardal Monteiro. it towers over the lower level buildings in one of the side streets off Avenida Marques de Tomar, not far from the world famous Gulbenkian Museum. Built in white painted cement, it is all angles and lines, relieved only by Francisoc Franco's relief figures over the main entrance. The interior is quiet and peaceful and decorated by stained glass panels, the work of artist Sobral de Almada Negreiros. 

Nossa Senhora de Rosario de Fatima
Nossa Senhora de Rosario de Fatima
Nossa Senhora de Rosario de Fatima
Lisbon is home to many art deco and modernist buildings and its hard to visit them all in just a few days, so as ever, I will need to visit again! Portugal's second city, Porto also has architectural riches in these styles so I feel a wider tour of Portugal coming on...

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Picture post 40 - iconic art nouveau in Vienna


Vienna boasts many architectural treasures. The city is especially well known for its art nouveau buildings, also reffered to as the jugendstil or secessionist style. One of my favourites of this genre is the Engel Apotheke (Angel Pharmacy) at Bognerstrasse 9 in the city centre. The building itself is unremarkable, but the facade is decorated in stunning art nouveau style, featuring two glass mosaic angels that give the pharmacy its name.

The angels, dressed in vibrant purple and gold dresses, stand on stone pedestals raising healing potions with the snake of aesclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine wound around their arms,  signifying the purpose of the store. The golden theme is repeated in the ringlets of both figures and in the sunflower freeze embedded in the wall above the large upper level windows. These windows are also decorated with a leaf freeze and wrought iron bars.  

Built between 1901 and 1902, the building, including its facade, was designed by Oskar Laske, a pupil of the great Otto Wagner. His decorative portal which spreads over the two lower levels of the pharmacy was intended to attract customers. It almost certainly did in 1901 when it would have been the height of modernity at a time when Klimt, Wagner, Hoffman and many others were at work in the city. Today it attracts art and architectural enthusiasts and historians, tourists and people needing prescriptions! 

Laske was involved in designing at least one other building of note in this style - the Nachtlicht, a cabaret where actors, dancers and musicians rubbed shoulders with the likes of architect and designer Adolf Loos and writers Karl Kraus and Peter Altenberg. I haven't been able to locate any pictures of Laske's work there and the club ran for only one year from 1906-7 before closing, upstaged by the legendary Cabaret Fledermaus. He went on to concentrate on painting rather than architecture, unsurprising given the beauty of his work at the Engel Apotheke. He worked primarily in water colours, recording his travels in Europe and North Africa, as well as being a book illustrator and graphic artist. Born in Czernowitz in 1874, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today part of the Ukraine, he served in the First World War and died in Vienna in 1951.

If you are visiting Vienna and go to view this lovely facade, I also recommend a visit to the shop next door - Zum Schwarzen Kameel,  (The Black Camel) an elegant patisserie selling delicious Viennese sweets, cakes and biscuits. Believe me, I know about these things. There has been a restaurant and shop there since the seventeenth century but the current building dates from 1901 and also has some art nouveau features.






Sunday, 15 March 2015

Elizabeth Is Missing - a story of memory and loss


This is a book about memory and loss. Emma Healey's first novel tells two stories, that of Maud, an elderly woman who believes her friend Elizabeth is missing and can't get anyone to believe her and also that of Maud's sister, Suki who disappeared years earlier. It examines the meaning of memory and of loss as Maud is engulfed by dementia.

It is the second book I have read in the last year that examines this most cruel of diseases and the impact it has on the lives of sufferers and those around them. I re-read Linda Grant's Remind me Who I Am Again last year as a way of finding out more about dementia when it suddenly affected my own circle. It tells the story of her elegant and very proper mother, her struggles with the disease and how the lives of her friends and relatives were affected as they struggle to cope, to get help or in the case of some, fall away and break contact. I recognised many scenes in Grant's book from my own experience, thinking several times that I wished I had noticed the things she describes when they happened instead of realising their significance now.

Elizabeth Is Missing examines this subject from a  different angle, that of the sufferer. Maud is the narrator of this story and describes in frightening detail the terror of not being able to remember, of being overwhelmed by the noise, colours and movement in the street, of writing hundreds of little notes to "remember" things and then struggling to understand what they mean later on. She also lets the reader in on how it feels when the world seems to be at odds with you - asking you strange questions, denying your dignity and being impatient with you to the point of anger. There is one particular scene that particularly struck me. Catching the bus, Maud can't work out what she needs to do before she can sit down and the driver and the other passengers seethe with impatience before someone finally shouts out to let her on "…can't you see she's old…" Impatience and patronisation feature a lot in this book - in shops, from the doctor even from the police at one point - the causal impatience and patronisation applied to people who are 

Maud is a collector. As a young woman she collected small items that had once belonged to her sister - a comb, bits of jewellery, clothes, even a broken finger nail as a way of preserving Suki's memory following her disappearance. In the same way, as dementia strips away more and more of her memory she uses notes to herself to try to preserve what she can as well as collecting flotsam from the street or the garden, often confusing it with items she had collected as a girl.

As well as memory, dementia often destroys language and throughout the story, Maud begins to lose words from her lexicon. She loves toast and early on in the book refers to the toaster. A little way in this becomes the thing that makes the bread brown. Cigarettes become things that you light and carrier bags become orange balls. There are also moments of near comedy, not least when she tries to place an advert in the local newspaper's missing column where the woman dealing with her thinks she is referring to a cat rather than her friend Elizabeth!

The dual storyline works well and holds the reader to the very end as we worry about what will happen to Maud, wonder where Elizabeth could be and fear what may have befallen her sister. The search for the two women makes this a very unusual detective novel, episodic, well observed and rich in detail. Its also a damn good story as evidenced by its winning of the Costa Book Award in 2014. We need more stories about people like Maud and we need more books from Emma Healey. Ms. Healey has a qualification in bookbinding, which is the art of putting a book together. She does that beautifully in binding two stories together in Elizabeth Is Missing.  Recommended.

(I found out about this book by following the recommendations of the wonderful Book Corner bookshop in Saltburn-by-the-sea. You can see what is being recommended by following the Book Corner's Facebook site).

Friday, 6 March 2015

Picture post 39 : Hammer House, secret art deco in Soho


Hammer Films is one of the most well known and best loved British film studios of all time. Founded in 1934, Hammer churned out niche horror movies throughout the 1950's and 1960's with the Frankenstein and Dracula series, and the 1959 classic, The Mummy, thrilling audiences of all ages. The studio was famously associated with British actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing who made chills run down the spine of many a cinema goer. As well as horror films, Hammer also produced a number of science fiction and psychological thriller movies with some great titles including Maniac, Paranoiac, Nightmare, Hysteria and Fanatic. You couldn't say you didn't know what you were getting with titles like those! The Hammer brand still exists and from time to time releases films including in 2012 a version of The Woman In Black featuring Daniel Radcliffe, best known as the screen face of Harry Potter.

Hammer House at 113-117 Wardour Street in London's Soho was once the home of the film company. Hammer's original distributor, Exclusive purchased the lease on this building in July 1937, but did not  rename it Hammer House until 1949. It remained the company's headquarters until the 1980's when the their gothic movies fell out of fashion and unable to afford the rent on their part of the building, withdrew to cheaper premises. Today the building is home Tony and Guy hairdressers and a wine store on the ground floor with a range of consulting and media companies take up office space on the upper levels.

Despite the many changes over the last decade or so, Soho is still my favourite part of London largely because of its many secret treasures and hidden gems. The outer door of Hammer House hides one of the street's prettiest features - a wonderful art deco lobby complete with a beautiful peacock feather designed stained glass inner door, patterned floor tiles, elegant staircase with torch style lighting and original lifts. I have twice managed to see inside the lobby when the door has been left open and last summer I was bold enough to ask the concierge if I could take photographs. To my surprise and delight not only did he say yes, he suggested I look inside the lifts and admire the staircase too. The light was not great and some of the pictures didn't come out well, but the best ones are featured on this post. I have been unable to find out who designed the interior or who the building's architect was so if anyone does know, please leave comments. It must at least predate 1937, the year Hammer took up residence. Although losing much of its bohemian flavour and despite the influx of the chain stores and cafes, its good to know that some of its glorious past survives and is cared for.






Saturday, 28 February 2015

East End Modernism

Commercial Road is a long windswept major traffic artery in the East End. At first glance it is largely characterless with ugly blocks of flats built after the extensive bombing damage of the Second World War. There are also a fair number of equally ugly buildings from more recent times housing educational establishments of different kinds, small shops and an assortment of greasy spoons, curry houses and kebab joints. However, a closer, more considered look will reveal that there are still many interesting,  even beautiful buildings. There are a couple of still working synagogues - remnants of the once very large Jewish presence in this area - the Nelson Street and The Congregation of Jacob synagogues on Commercial Road itself - both with beautiful interiors. I love the old school in Henriques Street with its byzantine style brickwork and side entrance marked "cookery and laundry". There are a few small cafes that might warrant exploration and I recently discovered that there are several art deco and modernist buildings.

Gwynne House, Turner Street
Turner Street runs off Commercial Road and is an interesting mixture of residential properties, businesses and parts of the London Hospital. It also boasts two fine examples of modernist architecture. Gwynne House is an apartment block built in 1934 and designed by architect Hume Victor Kerr. This block would not look out of place in Miami, Tel Aviv or any of the other major art deco/ modernist cities. It is a little surprising to find it here in the east end! Those walkway/ balconies are reminiscent of the Bauhaus, whilst the stylised lettering and sloping windows in the curved stairwell also add character. 

Formerly serving as subsidised accommodation for nurses and trainee doctors, the block was renovated in 2012 and is now a very desirable private address with two bedroomed flats selling for up to 400,000 pounds. Interestingly the Zoopla property website quotes 791,000 as the average price of a two bedroomed property in the E1 post code at the moment so Gwynne House is a bargain. Who would have thought it? At these prices the least the management company could do is repair the peeling paintwork on the stairwell!

Gwynne House, Turner Street

Gwynne House, Turner Street

Comfort House, Turner Street
Our friend Hume Victor Kerr was also responsible for Comfort House which stands on the corner of Turner Street and Nelson Street. Completed in 1932 as a factory and showroom for gown manufacturer M. Levy, the building retains its links with the rag trade today with commercial units on the ground floor and residential properties above. The original windows have gone which is a shame but Comfort House still has a striking presence with its white rendering, tall square cut towers, sharp angled corner and slightly projecting bands of windows with curved ends. There is a recessed "works entrance" in Turner Street, labelled with stylised lettering.

Comfort House, Turner Street
Comfort House, Turner Street
Back on Commercial Road, at the junction with Philpott Street stands another gem from the 1930's. Cheviot House was designed by G.G. Winborne for textile merchants Kornberg and Segal. Completed in 1937, by 1948 the company had gone and the building became Stepney Town Hall for a several years. Although badly neglected now, it is still possible to imagine how grand this building must have looked in the 1930's with the squared off glazed edges, concrete panels between floors and decorative wave details around the doors. Shamefully unlisted, Tower Hamlets Council considered demolition a few years ago to make way for a new residential development. That seems to have gone quiet now, but the Council has a poor record of caring for the built heritage having demolished another deco gem, Eden House, a few years ago. Cheviot House requires a suitable, sustainable use and a sympathetic restoration if it is to survive.

Cheviot House, Commercial Road
Cheviot House, Commercial Road
Cheviot House, Commercial Road
The Troxy cinema at 490 Commercial Road opened in 1932 with 3,520 seats, a revolving stage, a wurlitzer organ and a cafe/ restaurant located on the circle foyer level. It's first screening took place on 11th September 1933 and featured Fay Wray in King Kong. As well as screening Hollywood blockbusters, it also hosted live performances by such stars as Vera Lynn and the Andrews Sisters. Closed as a cinema in 1960 due to declining audiences as the community drifted away to other parts of the city,  the final screening was The Siege of Sidney Street with Donald Sinden. Sidney Street is of course a short step from the Troxy. The building then lay empty for a few years until the London Opera Centre took it over from 1963 to 1976. As with many large old cinemas, the Troxy went on to serve as a bingo hall before closing again in 2006.

Designed by George Coles and once part of the Gaumont group of cinemas, the Troxy was listed as with Grade II status in 1991 and retains some of its original features although others have been lost. The exterior features include decorative "vegetation" as well as black and gold panelling and two large fans on each side of the entrance. The fans are disappointingly made of unattractive plastic and are clearly not original. Nowadays the former cinema is a hireable venue and only open when events are taking place. However, it is possible to peep through the front windows and see the very nicely preserved lobby and former ticket counter.

The Troxy, Commercial Road
The Troxy, Commercial Road
Moving away from Commercial Road, across Whitechapel High Street towards Spitalfields there is another art deco beauty, the former Godfrey Phillips and Son Tobacco Works, designed by W. Gilbee Scott and B.W.H. Scott. Now known as The Exchange, 132 Commercial Street (not road!) dominates the northern end of the street through its sheer size. It has been  revitalised in recent years with residential on the upper floors and a range of shops at ground level. Its faience frontage which has been described as "restrained art deco" gives it an air of sophistication that would make it seem at home in Manhattan or in the Berlin of the early 1930's. The main entrance has an impressive arch and is topped with a clock. 

The Exchange, Commercial Street
The Exchange, Commercial Street
The Exchange, Commercial Street
I have also found two other interesting examples of art deco in this part of London. The first is a building in Liverpool Street about which I have been unable to find any information. Like the Exchange building it has a faience facade - although only at the upper level. It also has a clock - in the same style as the Exchange, so perhaps they are contemporaries of each other. Does anyone know anything about it? 

And finally, on Brick Lane, there is still a glimpse of the now long gone Mayfair Cinema. It opened in 1936, operating as an Odeon from 1950 until 1967 when it began to show Bollywood movies. It has since been a shop and an indoor car park (!) before being almost completely demolished in 1990 and emerging as Indian restaurant Cafe Naz, also now closed. All that remains is the original sign. Let's hope the other buildings in this post don't meet the same fate. 

Mystery building, Liverpool Street
Former Mayfair Cinema, Brick Lane
You might also like The Genesis, best cinema in the East End and A Cold Sunday in Spitalfields

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

A rediscovered classic, the art of the possible, the world in 1946 and looking after the family silver - Jewish Book Week 2015!

This year's Jewish Book Week began at the weekend in the superb Kings Place venue and once again is proving to be the highlight of the literary year. On Sunday I spent four consecutive hours listening to a range of authors, commentators and experts on a range of subjects. 


First up, Rabbi Julia Neuberger and award winning author Linda Grant discussed the recently republished GB Stern novel The Matriarch, variously described as a less serious Buddenbrooks, a forgotten feminist classic and a genre of Jewish literature no longer seen. The book is the first of a series of novels based on the author's own family, the characters being partially assimilated Jews with origins in Central Europe and living in London's fashionable West End. Anastasia Rakonitz, the matriarch of the title rules over her family with a rod of iron and is one of several strong female characters who maintain appearances even when the family's fortunes fade. Both Grant and Neuberger spoke about the dominance of domestic detail in the book, an obsession with food and clothes, witty descriptions of the daily life of the bourgeois Rakonitz family and the general weakness of the male characters. Both also made interesting points about swish wealth and knowledge needing to be portable in the event of regular flight from program and persecution with clothing (tailoring) representing the ultimate portable  and sustainable skill.

Although set in an earlier decade, the book was first published in 1924 and in the UK was originally entitled Tents of Israel. Of its time, the book includes a number of anti-Semitic comments including from the Rakonitz family members, ambivalent about their own Jewishness, including a reference to one character as "fat and oily…a nose that really was Jewish…an aggressive arriviste…" The original title is interesting as during the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, many established British Jewish families preferred to refer to themselves as Israelites rather than Jews. Daughter Toni in particular longs to break away from the societal restrictions of being Jewish and it is thought that the character is based on the author herself, who ambivalent about her ethnic and religious origins, converted to Catholicism after the Second World War. 

Gladys Bronwyn (originally Bertha) Stern was a best selling writer of her time. She published over 40 novels, several plays, short stories and other works and mixed with the great and the good of the inter-war literati, numbering Rebecca West, Noel Coward, H.G. Wells and Somerset Maugham amongst her acquaintances.  Despite this she is practically unknown now, as Linda Grant said "a dark warning from the past" that literary fame can soon fade away once the books stop coming.

From 1920's bourgeois fiction I moved on to an interview with Barbara Winton, daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton who arranged the rescue of 669 mostly (but not entirely) Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939 before the outbreak of war prevented him bringing even more out. Winton spoke of her father's belief in helping those who are helpless, no matter what their ethnicity, religion or background and of the great lengths he went to, to secure appropriate homes in the UK for the children he managed to get out. He was a modest man who did not seek recognition for his work which was little known until Esther Rantzen ran a TV feature on him in the 1980's, surprising him  with a reunion with several of the now middle-aged to elderly children. Ms Winton has recently published a biography of her father If Its Not Impossible which is a reference to a statement made by he made in relation to the rescue. 

The sessions included the opportunity to view the heart breaking photographs of children saying goodbye to their parents at the station in Prague before boarding the trains for Britain. Very few of them would ever see their family members again as 89% of Czech Jews and 83% of Slovak Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, figures only exceeded by the devastation to the Polish, Baltic and German/ Austrian communities. The parents clearly understood what was in store for them, many even agreeing to give their children up to non-Jewish homes in order to save their lives. 

Barbara told the audience that her father's original family name was Wertheim, being of German Jewish origin but that the family had converted in the previous generation. She also let us in on a a secret. Her father was to be given the freedom of the City of London the next day, February 23rd. This is a particularly poignant honour given that he had resigned his post as a broker in the stock exchange back in the 1930's and had been active in left wing circles prior to the outbreak of war. Described by his daughter as a private and relatively unemotional man, he is now 105 years old and still interested in politics, meeting from time to time with his MP - Theresa May, Secretary of State and the Home Office and telling her his views on her policies!


Next up was Victor Sebestyen, interviewed about his excellent book (I know this because I've read it!), 1946: The Making of the Modern World. He explained that it began as a book about the beginnings of the Cold War, but quickly developed into a wider review of the world in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the continuing conflict in many parts of the world and the impact of some of the decisions taken then, some of which is still being seen now. 

Sebestyen reminded us that although Germany and Japan were defeated in 1945, civil wars continued in the Ukraine and in Greece, claiming 75,000 and 150,000 lives respectively. His book examines these two conflicts but also looks at the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe in the immediate post war period, the pragmatic (for which read cynical) abandonment of the de-Nazification process in Germany (and its complete avoidance in Austria) and the success of the Marshall Plan in Japan. The latter two developments carried out with the sole intention of preventing communism from gaining ground in these two countries.

His comments in relation to the ultra right wing General McArthur were especially interesting. McArthur had astonishing powers in Japan following the country's surrender. His imposition of democracy on what had been a feudal society, including redistributing the land to the peasants was  described by Sebestyen as more left wing than some of the things the Soviets were doing! 

Many of the events described in 1946 echo today, not least the situate in the Ukraine. When asked if he thought Putin was another Stalin and trying to re-Sovietise Eastern Europe he replied that he thought not, rather that he is just "an old fashioned nasty Russian nationalist, offering no intellectual difference in lifestyle…this is not an ideological thing at all". Interesting. I hope he's right.

Finally, architectural and built heritage historian, Sharman Kadish warned us of the very real risk of losing many of our older synagogues in the inner cities as congregations decline, close or move away to the suburbs or other cities. A number of our finest buildings have become neglected, left vacant and vandalised including some real treasures. 

Sharman talked us through the experiences of Singers Hill synagogue in Birmingham and Princess Road in Liverpool both at risk of closure just a few years ago but now restored with reviving congregations and playing important roles in the lives of both the local Jewish and wider communities. She offered pragmatic solutions to maintaining large, costly buildings in small and declining communities and spoke of the importance of maintaining a visible Jewish presence that welcomes outsiders to its buildings especially during these dark times. Her session was extremely interesting with both good news stories and things to worry about. it also inspired me to visit a number of our architectural treasures in Bradford, Manchester and other cities. Ms Kadish is the author of several books on Jewish religious architecture and has a new edition of her excellent Jewish Heritage In England An Architectural Guide, coming out soon. 


As ever, this year's Jewish Book Week offers a diverse and engaging programme that will attract Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike. Where else could you get such a varied and high quality literary programme over the course of a single evening on a cold, dark, wet and windy February Sunday? And there are still four days of events to come!