Their Mortal Remains

P1020956Their Mortal Remains is the title of the huge Pink Floyd exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, which we went to see last weekend.

I’d been excited about the trip for weeks, and it didn’t disappoint. It was huge, it was stuffed with material ranging from personal letters to the band’s own instruments to huge models of album covers and/or special effects. There were things to look at, things to read, and things to watch and listen to. Everyone was given an audio headset on the way in, which played a variety of Floyd’s music and/or interviews with the band, roadies, and various other connected folk, depending on where you were amongst the exhibits.  And at the end, past a collection of vast replica inflatables from Animals and The Wall concerts (not least the floating pig!), there was a big interactive space where you were surrounded on all four sides by film footage and walls of sound, so that it felt as though you had prime seats at a Floyd concert.

There was also a wider interest in terms of the cover art, designed by the British company Hipgnosis, and critical acclaim for both the music and the lyrics of Floyd’s work. One expert said that in his opinion, Roger Waters should be ‘up there on the podium’ with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, a sentiment I totally agree with.

I found the whole experience incredibly moving, and as well as the sheer scale it also provided smaller items of note, like a handwritten letter describing the band’s first ever tour bus (you enter the exhibition through a larger-than-life version of it), and an explanation of where some of the album names came from.  Atom Heart Mother, for instance, was inspired by a newspaper headline about a woman who’d had a radioactive-powered pacemaker fitted, in the late 1960s.

A couple of small gripes – it was very hot, and very, very crowded.  There’s not a lot the V&A can do about the latter because this is turning out to be their most popular exhibition ever, and the queues just keep on building up. However, the twisty layout did create a few bottlenecks and as some of the fans wanted to read Every. Last. Word. on every label on every item, progress was slow and I kept getting elbowed out.  It was also pretty dark, which added to the overall atmosphere but made some of the exhibits and labelling hard to pick out.

However, this is an exhibition on the grand scale, entirely appropriate given some of Floyd’s own, dare I say, excessive set pieces.  But in amongst the replica aircraft, animals, and giant puppets, there are also small, intimate reminders that this was, first and foremost, a group of friends who gathered together to make the sort of music they loved.  And the interview about the inflatable pig breaking loose over London and getting into Heathrow airspace is just hysterical.

Their Mortal Remains was originally slated to end at the beginning of October, but it’s been so popular the V&A have extended it until the 15th. So if you’re a fan of Pink Floyd, prog rock or the history of music, do think about going along. It’s not cheap and it’s not a quiet ride, but it’s more than worth both the cost and the effort to see it.

(To give you some idea of scale, the model of the Division Bell cover at the top was over 20 feet tall; Battersea Power Station (below) probably larger still. But then Pink Floyd never did anything, well, small!)



Where the Heck Wednesday: Paul D Brazill

Another Wednesday rolls around and this week it’s the turn of the king of Brit-grit himself, Paul D Brazill, to take part in Where the Heck.  Thanks to Paul for shedding some light on the dark corners of London in his books.

Book titles: Guns of Brixton, Cold London Blues, A Rainy Night in Soho

Author: Paul D Brazill

Setting: London, UK / Facebook / Twitter


‘Once our beer was frothy  but now its frothy coffee…’ – Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be by Lionel Bart

In 1959, the great Lionel Bart turned Frank Norman’s London set play ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be’ into a musical comedy about ‘low-life characters in the 1950s, including spivs, prostitutes, teddy-boys and corrupt policemen’. This was a time of great change in post-war London – what with the ‘birth of the teenager’ and the Swinging Sixties looming on the horizon – and not everyone copes well with change, of course.

London is changing again, too, though not necessarily for the better.  Online, I see a litany of news stories about classic cinemas being converted into apartments for the super-rich and the destruction Tin Pan Alley – the home of British rock n roll. Indeed, the Soho of Bar Italia, Ronnie Scott’s, Norman and Jeff in The Coach and Horses, or Francis Bacon and Derek Raymond in The French House seems long dead or dying.

Ironically, the 50s coffee bars so disparaged in ‘Fings’ are now lamented as they are replaced with over-priced, homogenised sandwich bars and ‘frothy coffee’ seems decidedly risqué.

My books Guns Of Brixton, Cold London Blues, and A Rainy Night In Soho are violently comic tales of London low-life, occasionally rubbing shoulder with the high-life.  All three books focus on the Cook family – ageing London gangsters who aren’t adapting to change too well. All they have left is the shitty weather.

Here’s a clip from COLD LONDON BLUES :

‘Father Tim … looked out across the London skyline. The inky-black night had melted into a grubby-grey January morning. The city was waking now and the windows of the other granite tower blocks outside were starting to light up.

A cold wind, as sharp as a razor blade, sliced through him and Father Tim fastened his leather biker’s jacket as tightly as possible. Dark, malignant clouds crawled ominously across the sky.

‘Pissin’ miserable weather,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Pissin’ miserable country.’

He took a crushed packet of Marlborough cigarettes from the back pocket of his Levis, fished inside with shaking fingers.

On the opposite balcony, a tall man with long black hair took breadcrumbs from a plastic bag and threw them in the air. Black birds darted down from telephone lines where they had been lined up like notes on sheet music. The birds flew towards the tall man, landing on his balcony and sometimes on him. His raucous, joyous laughter brought an unfamiliar smile to Father Tim’s face.

On the street below, he could see a branch of a small general dealer with a bright green logo above the door, as well as an old bicycle factory that had recently been converted into a Wetherspoons pub, and a stretch of hip bars, including Noola’s Saloon, its green neon sign flickering intermittently.

The street bustled with the drunken debris of the previous night’s New Year’s Eve parties. The still-pissed and the newly hungover mingled.  A massive skinhead in a leopard skin coat walked up to Noola’s Saloon and pressed a door bell. The door opened emitting a screech of escaping metallic music as he slipped inside. Iggy and The Stooges’ ‘Search and Destroy.’ A sense of longing enveloped Father Tim. A feeling of time passing like grains of sand through his fingers.

Father Tim felt his rheumatism bite as he inhaled his first cigarette of the day. His chest felt heavy. If ever there was time to get the hell out of London it was probably now. The quack had told him to piss off to Spain, or somewhere as sunny, for a bit, for his health’s sake. It wasn’t a bad idea, either. He could even stay at his sister-in-law’s gaff in Andalucía if he wanted. But he knew he wouldn’t stay away for long. London was in his bones. His blood. His lungs. For better or for worse.’


Paul D. Brazill is the author of books like Cold London Blues, The Last Laugh, Guns Of Brixton, and Kill Me Quick! He was born in England and lives in Poland. He is an International Thriller Writers Inc. member whose writing has been translated into Italian, German, Polish, Finnish, and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime. He has even edited a few anthologies, including Exiles: An Outsider Anthology, and True Brit Grit.  His blog is here.


Harpsichords in Hampstead

Day two of our London trip found us in Hampstead, a suburb neither of us had visited before. And if we’d thought Kensington where we were staying was posh, then Hampstead was another world again. We emerged blinking into the sunlight to find a beautiful ‘village’ centre filled with boutiques, French bakeries, antiques centres and the like, and when we glanced into a couple of estate agents’ windows we almost had apoplexy. Prices in Kensington seem to hover around the £1.5 million mark; here they were closer to £4 million, for nothing larger than a two-bed apartment. It all felt quite… rarified, somehow, if very leafy and prosperous.

We’d gone because of a couple of National Trust properties nearby – Fenton House and 2, Willow Road. The former is a pleasant 17th century merchants’ house with a walled garden, set near the top of a steep hill, presumably so the residents would have the benefit of purer air. (That isn’t me being sarcastic, by the way – it really happened. Pollution tended to settle at the lower levels.) The house itself was sweet rather than stately, with rooms that weren’t so far removed from what would be considered a ‘good size’ these days. It had a comfortable feel, and you could really imagine the occupants living there, going about their daily business, pottering in the garden, writing letters at a desk in the window.

More unusual was the vast collection of keyboard instruments, mostly harpsichords, which littered every corner of every room. There was even one stuffed into the original, um, water closet off one of the bedrooms. I’ve heard of going for a tinkle but that does seem a mite ridiculous. The virginals in the attic were more impressive, complete with beautiful painted scenes inside and out. And the view from the ‘roof terrace’, across vast swathes of central London, was amazing. The 17th century residents would no doubt have been startled to see buildings like the Gherkin, the Cheese-grater, and the Shard, from their bedroom windows.

After lunch in one of the aforementioned French bakeries we headed for the other property, 2 Willow Road. This is a complete contrast – a 1930s modernist building designed and furnished by Erno Goldfinger and apparently filled to bursting with all sorts of contemporary furniture and art works. I say apparently because we couldn’t get in. There was a problem with volunteers, and the place was closed for most of the afternoon which was very disappointing. We did manage a brief foray onto Hampstead Heath, and then tripped over Burgh House, a small but fascinating (and free!) museum about the local area, which was hidden away on a back street in the area once known as Hampstead Wells. Ten minutes browsing in there taught us everything we’d ever wanted to know about Hampstead, its origins, its famous residents, its fate during the war and a whole lot else besides. It more than made up for the annoyance of the National Trust.

Shards and scalpels

We’ve just returned from a few days away on a city break in London, and great fun it was too. As usual we seemed to cram in far more than is possible in just three days (hmm, that sounds like the opening to a new tv series – “Visit as many London museums as possible: you have just three days to do it…”) and saw some truly wacky things in the process. I’ll try to post details, day by day, on here, as there’s too much to put in one post. So, here goes.

The first day we were a bit shattered after travelling all the way from the Far North of England, so we only managed a quick scoot into the Natural History Museum (always a favourite in spite of the crowds) to look at an exhibit of bugs and creepy crawlies.

The next morning, though, we set off bright and early and caught the tube across the city to London Bridge.  Stepping out of the tube station into daylight, we made the mistake of looking up and promptly nearly fell over because we were right in the shadow of The Shard, London’s (and I think Europe’s) tallest building.  Compared to the skyscrapers of America and the Far East it’s probably nothing special, but here it towers over everything else and is truly awe-inspiring, even if looking up that far does make you feel dizzy.  We’d have liked to go to the top to see the view for ourselves, until we found out the price – a whopping £30 “per unit”, whatever that means, just for the privilege of travelling in a lift.  I don’t think so.

Our main purpose in any case lay further down the street at the old church of St Thomas.  Here, back in the early nineteenth century, the surgeons of St Thomas Hospital next door took over the attic to form, of all things, an operating theatre to carry out surgery on women.  In those days the church backed onto the main women’s ward of the hospital, and the attic was considered far enough away not to disturb the other patients with screams from those being operated on.  The garret next door had already been used for storing medicinal herbs for the hospital, so perhaps this was a natural progression and not quite as bonkers as it sounds – although quite what effect it had on the congregation busy praying and singing hymns in the church below, I’m not sure.

The old St Thomas Hospital has long since moved to a new and larger site in Lambeth and the building that would have given access to the attic has been demolished.  The operating theatre was abandoned, closed up, and forgotten about entirely until the 1950s, when a researcher stumbled across it having clambered up a spiral staircase inside the church tower and broken through a wall.  The Old Operating Theatre Museum was duly founded, equipment and displays moved back in (up that same spiral staircase, in a superhuman feat of strength and ingenuity), and you can now visit and see the theatre and herb garret for yourself.

And absolutely fascinating it is too, if a little gruesome.  I preferred the displays on medicinal herbs and their preparation to the rows of specimen jars, scalpels and other instruments of torture used for surgery in those days, but even the latter had its own morbid fascination.  For anyone studying medicine or the history of surgery, I’d say this museum is an absolute must.  For anyone else, it’s a bizarre, unique and fascinating foray into a world I’m quite glad we’ve left behind.