How Star Trek revolutionised​ the modern world

Star Trek recently celebrated its 51st birthday and this week with the launch of Star Trek Discovery the mission to entertain and inspire continues with renewed vigor.

The scientific inventions that we use on a daily basis inspired by WW2 generation writers inspired by visions of the 23rd century are well documented and growing. Communicators to mobile phones, holodecks to virtual reality, Lcars to Ipads, replicators to 3d printers.

What is less often appreciated is in some ways even more important and that is how the ideals of Star Trek have become the ideals of us or at least more and more of us.

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The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was an all-American boy. Born in Texas in 1921, he worked in war and peacetime as a pilot before moving to Los Angeles to write TV scripts. In 1964, he took a draft of Star Trek to Desilu Productions. They commissioned a first pilot with NBC, rejected because it was “too cerebral”, then a second pilot with the network that introduced William Shatner as Captain Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock the Vulcan.

Television sci-fi in the past had either been camp nonsense or narrowly obsessed with hard science and as entertaining as watching paint dry. Star Trek was different however and preferred to explore moral questions in a futuristic setting.  It was less about giant Amazon women, irradiated giant Ants or flying alien brains and more about matters of social justice and consequence.   In short it was ahead of its time not just for science fiction but for television as a whole and this no doubt explains its initial problems gaining popularity.

Critics were divided over its September 8, 1966 debut. The New York Times called it an “astronautical soap opera that suffers from interminable flight drag.” Ratings for the first couple of seasons were middling; NBC considered cancellation. The show was saved with help from a grassroots effort – including student protests and interventions by high profile fans like Isaac Asimov. It came back for a third season, but Kirk and Spock were relegated to the Friday night scheduling dead zone. NBC had shot the golden goose with a phaser set ti kill and the show closed in 1969.

Ironically, weeks after the show was cancelled a new and improved ratings system placed Star Trek not at the very bottom of the popularity league but instead right at the very top and doubly so amongst the import youthful demographics but tragically the expensive sets had already been taken down and many destroyed.

As such it was really the re-runs in the 1970s and movies in the 1980s that elevated it to the status of a popular classic.  Even today on a daily basis Star Trek is on television decades after much later shows have vanished from our memories.

Television often is the product of its time and in the mid to late 1960’s that time was of  President John F Kennedy. As so many of our shows today are overshadowed by terror, and fear then Star Trek was influenced by the liberal ideals of  President Kennedy.  Captain Kirk himself didn’t look too unlike Kennedy,  The United Federation of Planets was the United States. The clever, noble but uptight Vulcans were British, indeed Leonard Nimoy was for a long period due to speak with an English accent as it would surely be logical for Vulcans to speak English in the most proper fashion.  On the other side of the coin were the Klingons whose empire was as vast and fearful as the Soviet Union and whose idealism was precisely the opposite of our own and that of our heroes.

Whilst there were times that Star Trek strayed into an American nationalist cliche and I love ‘Eed plebniste’ as much as the next man,  the bridge of the USS Enterprise was supposed to reflect the idealism of the Sixties that was far in advance of the realities of the time and in many places it still is ahead of the realities of today, though happily not where I have ever lived.  It contained a Japanese American – played by a gay actor, George Takei, whose parents had been interred during the Second World War and a Russian character who was envisioned as someone for teenage girls to swoon over. Mr Spock’s mixed-species parentage alarmed a few racists but what really put the cat amongst the pigeons was having a black woman in charge of communications: Lieutenant Uhura, portrayed by Nichelle Nichols.

Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, put her desire to become an astronaut down to Nichols’ revolutionary performance. And when Nichols considered quitting the show to pursue a career on Broadway, she found herself persuaded to stay put by the country’s greatest living civil rights activist. Martin Luther King Jnr introduced himself to Nichols at a fundraiser and described himself as a Trekkie. He said: “Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.” So she did.

There were limits to how many frontiers Star Trek could cross. Lieutenant Uhura might have a fancy title but she was essentially a telephonist in a short skirt. Nevertheless it worked for decades before actress Whoopie Goldberg herself became part of Star Trek lore, she sore a young back female officer on the Enterprise and shouted through excited to her mother to see for herself “Momma, Momma.  There’s a black woman on television and she aint no maid”.

Whilst not perfect in its profile of women this was largely due to the conservative outlook of the television networks and in the USA more importantly, their advertisers. Most of the women in the show were eye candy. Dr McCoy’s constant ribbing of Mr Spock sometimes verged on racism but operating within these parameters, Star Trek was still prepared to challenge the viewers assumptions and as a result, some NBC outlets in the South refused even to air it.

In the episode Plato’s Stepchildren, Kirk and Uhura were forced by an alien power beyond their control to share a kiss – a scene that was shot twice, one with a smooch and the other without lest the network lost its nerve. Shatner and Nichols hammed it up in the second recording to ensure that it would never be used.    Interestingly whilst this shocked the USA, we in the UK had already had our inter-racial kiss and though the episode was not shown in parts of the USA and UK, in the USA it was down to issues over race whilst in the UK it was down to the disturbing treatment of the poor dwarf, Alexander and the abuse of the telekenetic powers on him, Kirk and Spock.

How the kiss got through American censors is unknown, Gene Roddenberry said that they figured that no-one was even watching the show so who cares!

In the episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, a good example of Star Trek’s liberal didacticism, the crew picked up two monochrome aliens determined to kill each other to fulfil a blood feud. Their only difference? One alien was black down the left-hand side of his body and white down the right, the other was black down the right and white down the left. Hence racism is not only destructive but, the show concluded, fundamentally absurd.

In Whom Gods Destroy, you have Captain Kirk telling his crazed captors that he considers the Vulcan Mr Spock as his brother.

Capt. Kirk: They were humanitarians and statesmen, and they had a dream, a dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars, a dream that made Mr. Spock and me brothers.

Garth: Mr. Spock, do you consider Capt. Kirk and yourself brothers?

Mr. Spock: Capt. Kirk speaks somewhat figuratively and with undue emotion; however, what he says is logical, and I do, in fact, agree with it.

Star Trek also stood out due to its willingness to reflect the things already happening outside on the streets, where youth and cops clashed over Vietnam and civil rights. The show also offered comment and archetypes for people navigating a complex decade to identify with. Kirk was an old school liberal – a rugged individualist. People often refer to the Star Trek universe as socialist: egalitarian, ordered like a military unit. Anyone who ever watched the show will realise this isn’t strictly trye.  Kirk cut rather a Byronic figure, romantic in more ways than one, cynical yet inspiring and with the knack of disobeying his superiors.

Incredibly it was Spock who most represented the future of humanity and the liberal ideal.

It’s also impressive just what a big impact the original actors have made long after their initial 3 year run. Leonard Nimoy became an artist, poet and peace campaigner let alone the director of one of the biggest Hollywood movies of the 80’s. William Shatner is still pretty much the top of the American pop culture tree and almost as recognisable today as he was in his heyday as the second most recognised figure after Jesus and the top brand after Coca Cola and who even has a cultist church with ardent fanatics.

George Takei, worked on public transportation in California before becoming an iconic figure within the gay rights movement.

One last way that Star Trek should be remembered is because of how it changed television itself.  Before Kirk went into space, shows were loved but disposable.  In science fiction and fantasy it retains a level of quality and faithfulness that were never seen again until only the most recent and expensive shows such as Game of Thrones.  In Star Trek the audiences were treated as thoughtful individuals and everyone from the writers to the set designers and through to the actors stood up for the integrity of the show.    The Enterprise itself adheres to engineering principles, even if some of those principles are beyond current science, it is consistent with itself and not just a rocket ship or a flying saucer.   Gene Roddenberry was even visited by the military as they thought he had access to top secret information as his futuristic sickbay with those famous life monitor machines were too close to comfort for the military of the time.

George Takei for instance came terribly close to a big fall out with the director of one weeks show when the director wanted Sulu to press a certain button as he envisoned it would be better dramatically.  At some risk to his position, the actor refused stating that for nearly 3 years the audience knows which buttons Sulu presses when performing this function.     It sounds stupid but until then and indeed in some shows, after then, people just didn’t care.  However if you think about it as driving a car, everyone knows what a gear stick does and what a windscreen wiper lever does.  It would kill all the drama if in a regular show the director insisted that it was more dynamic if the actor used the gear stick to put the wipers on.

In the 1970s, television networks discovered the value of repeats and of fan loyalty – people who would religiously watch every episode and collect memorabilia.

The list of Star Trek fans is endless.  The King of Jordan famously brings his collection of shows when out on manouvres in the desert and even appeared in an episode of Voyager.   Interestingly you can have people whose actions and beliefs don’t always follow the spirit of Star Trek. Stephen Hawking is a fan as is Scottish Separatist Alex Salmond, Bill Gates and James Bond star Daniel Craig.

Visiting the set of a Star Trek movie in 1991, Ronald Reagan said: “I like them [the Klingons]. They remind me of Congress”  Whilst on the opposite of the political divide you have Barack Obama who said upon the death of Leonard Nimoy.

“I loved Spock, long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy.”

Star Trek has always been my favourite show and as the book says, All I Really Need To Know, I learned from watching Star Trek.   What I really appreciate though beyond everything else above, as marvellous as it is, is that the main characters are undeniably better or at least equal to me.  These days every film and television show has stupid characters who are almost in every way and I don’t want to watch people less noble than myself… who really does?   I feel I could easily sit in a room with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and the others and be in a room of equals albeit it with myself being far less equal than the others!!!  I could be at home there whereas with almost every other showI can’t help but think that they are all idiots one way or the other.

In Star Trek TNG, it was recorded that television fell out of popularity by 2040 and as with so many Star Trek prophesies that end up self-fulfilling, the new Star Trek Discovery begins airing this week not on regular television but on CBS Access and internationally on Netflix.

 

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The City On The Edge of Forever – possibly the most popular science fiction episode of all time.

 

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Dr Samuel Johnson, his dictionary and quotes

It is 308 years since the birth of Samuel Johnson, who wrote the English language’s most comprehensive dictionary in the 1750s.  So this seems as good a time as any to express my utmost contrafibularities (see below) to the man himself.

Johnson, born in 1709, spent nine years working on A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755. It remained the definitive English dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary was completed in 1928.

It makes sense that this great man became so renowned for one of the greatest books in history as Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, the son of a bookseller. He attended Prembroke College, Oxford, in his late teens but struggled to afford the fees, complained of the intellectual idleness of his contemporaries and felt humiliated when a fellow student took pity on him and presented him with a replacement pair of shoes as a gift.

The great man left university without completing his degree and launched himself into the coffeehouses and print shops of literary London, living a life of genteel poverty, forever under threat from his creditors. His earliest works included the long-form poems ‘London’ and ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ and the periodicals The Rambler and The Idler.

 Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

Having completed the mammoth task of assembling the dictionary, a commission for which he was handsomely reimbursed, Johnson wrote an analysis of Shakespeare and a biography of his friend Richard Savage, a poet convicted of murder.

A rare foray into fiction, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), followed and proved a commercial success. The novella was an exotic philosophical fable that told the story of a wayward young royal’s decision to leave behind his isolated homeland, the Happy Valley, in search of true contentment in the wider world.

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Despite his impact, fortune often eluded Johnson, and he struggled with women and alcohol. However, he is known as one of the world’s greatest lexicographers, as well as the subject of the first modern biography.

 

It took Johnson nine years to complete as he rarely rose from bed before noon although he had originally promised to complete it in three. Once finished it was as much of a work of art as one of reference, full of witty definitions. Here are some examples:

  • Dull: Not exhilaterating (sic); not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work
  • Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words
  • Mouth-friend: Someone who pretends to be your friend
  • Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people
  • Pension: An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country
  • Stockjobber: a low wretch who gets money by buying and selling shares

It was hardly comprehensive: the first edition contained just 42,773 entries, compared to more than 250,000 words in the English language.

While Johnson is best known for his dictionary, he had an accomplished career even without it. He was a poet and spent years creating a collection of the works of Shakespeare.

Despite professional success however, Johnson – disfigured from childhood tuberculosis – often found himself in debt and had little luck with women. His wife Tetty became addicted to laudanum – opium dissolved in alcohol – and died in 1752, before his dictionary was completed.

He then fell in love with a married woman named Hester Thrale. When Thrale’s husband died she moved to Italy to marry her music teacher.

The primary reason for Johnson’s enduring appeal though, outside of his own remarkable achievements in print, is surely the ongoing popularity of James Boswell’s fantastically detailed Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). The book recounts the many wise, comic and vitriolic sayings its subject produced when “talking for victory” late into the night with his peers and clubmates. That circle included such great figures of the age as portrait painter and Royal Academy founder Joshua Reynolds who painted the painting above, actor David Garrick, politician Edmund Burke and playwright Oliver Goldsmith.

 

Words of Wisdom

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Johnson was a great advocate for London and lived happily at 17 Gough Square off Fleet Street for many years with his wife Elizabeth “Tetty” Johnson and their cat Hodge. The house, just yards from Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, his tavern of choice, is now a museum dedicated to Dr Johnson’s memory and a statue of his cat is part way between the house and the pub!

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

“I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.”

“The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!” Johnson was notorious for the cheeky derision he displayed towards Scots, as demonstrated by the aforementioned dictionary definition or such assertions as, “Knowledge was divided among the Scots, like bread in a besieged town.”

However, Johnson wasn’t afraid to confront his prejudices and famously went with Boswell, a proud Highlander who sought to correct the prejudice and took Johnson to visit, a journey recorded in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1775)

“A fly, sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.”

“Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” 

“Tea amuses the evening, solaces the midnight, and welcomes the morning.”

Tea was integral to Johnson’s extraordinary output and he claimed to drink as many as 25 cups of an evening.

“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Johnson suffered from ill health throughout his life, beset by scrofula, gout and fits of depression.

 “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”

“The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.”

I have saved my favourite quotation until the end as it just seems so apt.

His melancholy often gave rise to a hatred of humanity or misanthropy as indicated by the following observation: “I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.” 

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To many people in the UK, Dr Johnson also brings to mind a wonderful episode of Black Adder where Robbie Coltrane portrays the man himself hoping for some royal patronage from Prince Thickiehead Regent.

 

When the dictionary is accidentally thrown on the fire, it leaves Blackadder and co to do the impossible and re-create 9 years of work into one night, lest they be hung up by their necks the day!

 

 

 

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Wilton’s Music Hall – Victorian London Comes To Life!

If you read my review of The Limehouse Golem earlier this week, you’ll remember how much of the plot revolves around a Victorian era music hall.  Music Halls were once widespread around the entire country but eventually became all but extinct with the advent of cinema, television and modern day discos and clubs.

However there is one notable example music hall in East London that has quite literally soared back to life like a phoenix from the ashes. Tucked behind a row of terraces, this vast barrel-vaulted venue is the East End’s best-kept secret. Now, thanks to an overhaul that leaves the tattiness intact, a beguiling Tardis of Victoriana is open for business once more.

It’s not an easy place to find, a little alleyway off a side street, Wilton’s Music Hall incorporates all 4 of the 1690s terrace houses on Graces Alley, but once found, on walking up to the building you cannot fail to ‘feel’ the place.

Wilton's Music Hall Entrance in Grace's Alley

Wilton’s Music Hall Entrance in Grace’s Alley

Wilton’s began life as five houses – 1 to 4 Graces Alley and 19 Wellclose Square. Originally built in the 1690s as individual houses, the buildings have had various alterations and reconstructions over the years including being combined by John Wilton in the 1860s.

Photograph of John-Wilton

Photograph of John-Wilton

The largest house (1 Graces Alley) was an ale house dating from the first half of the 18th century, serving the Scandinavian sea captains and wealthy merchants who lived in neighbouring Wellclose Square.

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This map from 1792 shows the origins of Wiltons Music Hall.

From 1826 the ale house was also known as The Mahogany Bar supposedly because the landlord was the first to install a mahogany bar and fittings in his pub. In 1839 a concert room was built behind the pub and the building’s life as a venue began. In 1843 the ale house was licensed for a short time as The Albion Saloon – a saloon theatre, legally permitted to stage full-length plays.

John Wilton bought the business in c.1850, building his first music hall in place of the previous concert room in 1853. He then replaced it with his ‘Magnificent New Music Hall’ in 1859. He furnished the hall with mirrors, chandeliers and decorative paintwork and installed the finest heating, lighting and ventilation systems of the day. Madrigals, glees and excerpts from opera were at first the most important part of the entertainment, along with the latest attractions from West End and provincial halls, circus, ballet and fairground.

By the early 1860s the first of the larger proto-variety theatres were being built in the West End. John Wilton may have spotted the  new trend, selling up early in 1868 and opening a West End restaurant. The music hall carried on under a number of different proprietors for another thirteen years.

In 1877 a serious fire in the hall left just the four walls and the ten barley twist columns that still support the balcony. The hall was rebuilt and refurbished the following year but with hardly any change to the 1859 design. In 1881 Wilton’s Music Hall closed its doors, certainly as a respectable licensed music hall and possibly because the 1878 rebuild did not conform to fire regulations brought in that year.

In the thirty years Wilton’s was a music hall, many of the best-remembered acts of early popular entertainment performed there, from George Ware who wrote ‘The Boy I love is up in the Gallery’ to Arthur Lloyd and George Leybourne (Champagne Charlie), two of the first music hall stars to perform for royalty.

Towards the end of the 19th Century the East End had become notorious for extreme poverty and squalid living conditions. Religious organisations tried to help. In 1888 Wilton’s was bought by the East London Methodist Mission. The Methodists renamed the building ‘The Mahogany Bar Mission’ and for some time considered it ‘Methodism’s finest hall’. During the Great Dock Strike of 1889, a soup kitchen was set up at The Mahogany Bar, feeding a thousand meals a day to the starving dockers’ families.

The Mission remained open for nearly 70 years, through some of the most testing periods in East End history including the 1936 Mosley March and the London Blitz. Throughout that time the Methodists campaigned against social abuses, welcomed people of all creeds and ethnicity, and gave invaluable support to the local community, particularly the needy children of the area.

The Victorian era Wilton's Bar.

The Victorian era Wilton’s Bar.

After heavy wartime bombing, many local businesses and residents left the East End. The Mahogany Bar congregation was much reduced and the Mission closed in 1956. The building was then used for several years by a rag sorting warehouse. In the early 1960s the London County Council drew up plans for demolition and redevelopment of the whole area between Cable Street and the Highway, Cannon Street Road and Ensign Street, including Wilton’s. A campaign was launched to save the building led by theatre historian John Earl who persuaded the poet John Betjeman and the newly formed British Music Hall Society to back the campaign which proved to be ultimately successful.

However, the building remained empty and in doing so suffered more structural damage and decay. The campaign to save Wilton’s gathered steam with articles in theatrical and variety journals and in 1970 Spike Milligan persuaded the BBC to produce The Handsomest Room in Town – a star-studded recreation of a night at Wilton’s Music Hall, filmed in the hall itself. The building was grade 2* listed in 1971 and in 1972 John Earl, together with Peter Honri, an actor and music hall historian, founded the first trust to raise funds to buy the lease.

A first phase of essential urgent repairs was completed in 1982 though in many ways the music hall remained very far from safe and secure.  However the evident dereliction wasn’t enough to deter artists from making use of the great old building.  Amongst other projects Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin 1992, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax 1984 and Annie Lennox’s No More I Love You’s 1995 were all filmed here.

In 1997 audiences were once again invited to see a performance, this time The Waste Land, performed by Fiona Shaw and directed by Deborah Warner. The production received rave reviews with many critics commenting on how suited Wilton’s was to the desolate mood of Eliot’s poem. In the middle of winter, the hall was unheated; the flyer said ‘please dress warmly’ and one journalist added ‘wear hard hats’.

In 1999, Broomhill Opera obtained the first artistic residency, opening Wilton’s more regularly to the public and they and their successors have succeeded in their goal which coupled with even more renovation means that we once more have a totally authentic Victorian era Music Hall right in the East End of London, just a short though mazey walk from The Tower of London or the infamous Whitechapel.

The Lower Level of the restored Wilton's Music Hall

The Lower Level of the restored Wilton’s Music Hall

Wiltons’s has a full programme of exciting events as well having fine food and drink available at The Mahogany Bar and the Cocktail Bar.  For those like myself who also like history, they also run a wonderful tour behind the scenes on a monthly basis.  Visit their official website and travel back to Victorian London today.

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The Limehouse Golem – Film Review

I haven’t spent much time at the cinema this year, that is mostly because I have been so busy but also due to the proliferation of those dreadful in my opinion comic book movies which rather take over the big screen.  It seems I’m not alone as attendances have been way down but in the last few weeks a number of more sophisticated outings have lured me back even if some are only minimally sophisticated.  I’m talking about Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde and the Hitmans Bodyguard whilst two others a definitely more refined, Wind River which I saw today and The Limehouse Golem which though I watched it a week ago, still is prominent in my thoughts.

 

Watch Out - The Limehouse Golem Is About

Watch Out – The Limehouse Golem Is About

 

London has a long history and when you think of the city it is easy to imagine it in various guises, Roman, Viking, Medieval, Tudor, plague ridden and on fire, bombed out, Swinging Sixties and right up to the modern futuristic skyscape.  Like Dr Who, everyone has their favourite incarnation and when it comes to London it is for so many that of Victorian London that grips the imagination.

No matter how the city changes, it will always be in essence somewhat match the opening lines of Bleak House.

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes … Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.

It doesn’t matter that the smoke and the soot and the fog have gone, that taxis no longer uses horses or that policemen no longer wear capes.  The London of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes lives on along with that great villain more evil than any fictional character, Jack The Ripper.

The Limehouse Golem is in many ways inspired by Jack and the disputed diaries of James Maybrick.  The city of London is gripped with fear as a serial killer – dubbed The Limehouse Golem – is on the loose and leaving cryptic messages written in his victim’s blood. With few leads and increasing public pressure, Scotland Yard assigns the case to Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) – a seasoned detective with a troubled past and a sneaking suspicion he’s being set up to fail. Faced with a long list of suspects, including music hall star Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), Kildare must get help from a witness who has legal troubles of her own (Olivia Cooke), so he can stop the murders and bring the killer to justice.  Also worthy of note is Daniel Mays who ably pulls off hard-working George Flood who works with the Inspector on this ghastly case.

 

 

The story follows Scotland Yard detective John Kildare who is aptly portrayed by Bill Nighy. Everything about the detective is just right; the articulate way he speaks, the wonderful clothing and purposeful strides through some of the smartest and grottiest parts of Victorian London.  He has a rather mercurial sense of humour as he methodoligcally goes through the clues as each and every murder is unleashed whilst remaining private about his career. He is a greatly respected man, but one who will likely never get the position he deserves thanks to suspicions of “not being the marrying kind”.

Indeed, his newest case, finding the Jack the Ripper-esque Limehouse Golem, is set up to fail. No one can crack this one, so when he comes up blank it will be easy to pin the blame on the unfortunate detective.  However, a new angle unfolds when the husband of a famous musical hall actress turns up poisoned, and she is blamed. Kildare suspects that he was actually the wanted Golem, and that he topped himself out of guilt. If he can prove this, he’s got his monster, and he also saves an innocent woman from the gallows.

The film has two additional areas which it deals with.  The first and one which is brought back to life in incredible detail is that of an old fashioned music hall and local theatre company.  Even though I greatly enjoyed the horror aspects of the film and the wonderful outdoor sets, it was the atmosphere of the music hall that I most enjoyed.  It was all so evocative and easy to see why the masses would use these as the television of their century.

The other area the film takes a glancing look at is the idea and satisfaction that men have in ‘saving women’.  It could almost be said to be a little of a feminist film, especially given the ending.

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Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke), who is as much the main character as Nighy’s detective, is the accused music hall star who comes from humble roots working as a sailcloth sewer. She had an abusive mother who, while it is left a little vague, scars her in a manner such that she remains disinterested in sex as an adult. What does move her is acting, which she somewhat falls into after becoming a stagehand with a company led by the comedian/singer/drag artist Dan Leno and the seemingly charitable Uncle.  Indeed it is one of just many shocks when Uncle is revealed to not be quite as saintly as imagined.

After one of their troupe (a lewd dwarf) dies in an accident, Elizabeth puts on one of his costumes and improvises a bit as a “salty sailor”. It’s a swift success and suddenly she is co-headlining the show. As her star rises she meets a young scholar and would-be playwright called John Cree, who we may remember from the film’s opening framing device as her dead husband.

The tale is told in flashback as Kildare questions Elizabeth to formulate a defence, but he’s also interrogating other suspects so he can prove the late John Cree guilty by process of elimination. Due to some smart deductions and some written notes it transpires that The Limehouse Golem  has to be one of the few people who were in the British Museum reading room on a certain date.  If you don’t think Karl Marx was a serial killer then the number of suspects is reduced by one.

 

Inside the music hall in The Limehouse Golem.

Inside the music hall in The Limehouse Golem.

 

As Kildare approaches each suspect he tests their handwriting and we get to see how the detective envisions each character committing a gruesome murder. It is, decidely, amusing to see the ridiculously bearded Karl Marx with an overblown German-Jewish accent, saw someone’s head off.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot, and I found most of them quite satisfying.  The performances of the actors are tremendous especially from Oliva Cooke who creates a richly sympathetic character. It is this character that her husband obsesses over and this is why he spends most of their time together writing a play about his idealised vision of her, and how he fits in as her saviour. The problem comes when fantasy and reality fail to meet and as you might imagine it doesn’t end well.

The mix between the cold grey execution cells, the scary darkness of the foggy streets of Limehouse on the banks of the Thames and the warm, inviting and extravagent music hall seperates this film from other similar films.

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I’m a big horror fan and have been since I watched Halloween about 11 years underage with my likely rather scared Mother.  It is hard to find a good horror these days as most as stylized teenage ripper tales where the horror gets watered down.  This isn’t a horrific film but it does take the genre somewhat seriously and comes across very much as an updated Hammer Horror type film.

It must be said that there is a great twist at the end of the film and I personally think it might be the best twist in a horror film if not any film since The Sixth Sense.  Whilst not quite at that level, I totally didn’t expect it and I’m the person who predicted the twists in Arrival within minutes of the start of the film.  Perhaps it was because I walk along some of the streets, I spent some of the time working out where the filming locations were but I don’t think so as I was so engulfed in the film itself.  They even re-created long lost city landmarks which even most Londoners wouldn’t know about as oppose to the Hitmans Bodyguard whose route through the city made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

I heartily recommend the film which has nationwide release in the UK and has limited release in the USA and elsewhere but also available for download too.

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The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.

As a species we can be a pretty gloomy bunch.  Capable of brilliance but just as likely incapable of seeing almost the blinding obvious.

These days we are seemingly doomed on a whole host of issues.  Climate change, the break down of civil cohesion, over population, mass immigration on a biblical scale.  Pollution, Brexit pretty much every thing really.  We may as well give up now.

This isn’t a new phenomena, we have always been doomed for as far back as history goes.  Almost without exception, nothing is ever as bad as first imagined and the doom laden naysayers generally base their assumption on the constant that nothing else will change.   These predictions don’t have to be negative, plenty of less doom-laden ideas seem laughable such as the idea that the world would only ever need a handful of computers.

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Perhaps it is because making such predictions requires a certain mindset of logic and statistics that these very people are less equipped than many other to the actual problems rather than way lyrical about how insurmountable they have become.   Namely a lack of creativity or independent thinking.

It’s worth bearing this in mind when we are repeatedly told how bad things could get if things don’t improve but history also proves that we are ingenious at creating solutions when things get really pressing.   A great example of this occurred just over 100 years ago and is so far away from life now that you’d be hard pressed to ever imagine it.  Namely the great horse-manure crisis.

Nineteenth-century cities depended on thousands of horses to function.  Horses then were like electricity, gas or the internal combustion engine.   Everything depended on horses and all transport, whether of goods or people, was drawn by horses.  The bigger and more sophisticated the city was the more horses there were.

In the closing years of the 19th century London had 11,000 taxis, all horse-powered. There were also several thousand buses, each of which required 12 horses per day, a total of more than 50,000 horses. In addition, there were countless carts, drays, and wains, all working constantly to deliver the goods needed by the rapidly growing population of what was then the largest city in the world.   London was in the worst position but a similar situation was developing across all the major cities of the world.

The problem of course was that all these horses produced huge amounts of manure. A horse will on average produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day. Consequently, the streets of nineteenth-century cities were covered by horse manure. This in turn attracted huge numbers of flies, and the dried and ground-up manure was blown everywhere.   Each horse also produced around 2 pints of urine each day and to make things worse, the average life expectancy for a working horse was only around 3 years. Horse carcasses therefore also had to be removed from the streets. The bodies were often left to putrefy so the corpses could be more easily sawn into pieces for removal.   Aside from the smell, the health implications were enormous.    Civilisation was dependent on the horse but the horse was now beginning to poison the people.

Impoverished children play next to a dead horse in London.

Impoverished children play next to a dead horse in London.

In 1898 the first international urban-planning conference was convened in New York. It was abandoned after three days, instead of the scheduled ten, because none of the delegates could see any solution to the growing crisis posed by urban horses and their output.

The problem did indeed seem intractable. The larger and richer that cities became, the more horses they needed to function. The more horses, the more manure. Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure.  Crazily, all these horses had to be stabled, which used up ever-larger areas of increasingly valuable land. And as the number of horses grew, ever-more land had to be devoted to producing hay to feed them (rather than producing food for people), and this had to be brought into cities and distributed—by horse-drawn vehicles.  Let alone what you do with all the manure, no doubt taken away by more horses. Just as today, we were all doomed.

Fortunately for us and entirely unpredicted by the experts, we are in no way up to our eyes in horse manure.  Thanks to the ingenuity of the first motor car manufacturers of over a century ago, a radical solution was found and as a civilisation, we were no longer shackled to the horse in the city and vast tracts of land could be repurposed.

Even today people who know of the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894 refer to it to remind people how even an impossible problem can be overcome, given a new approach to solving it.

 

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The lost and hidden rivers of London

It’s easy to see London as one big mega city with just one river, what Londoners fondly call old Father Thames. When the tide of the river rises and falls it is almost as if you can see the city itself breathe. The Thames has always been the centre for life in the city even if these days it is more usually posing patiently for tourist drawings, etchings and photos.   What is less known however is that London is full of other rivers.  It makes sense doesn’t it?  London is in a big natural bowl, hence the predilection for foggy winter days and hot and humid summers.

In fact there are at least 21 tributaries that flow into the Thames within the spread of Greater London itself, and that is just counting the main branches. Once tributaries, and tributaries of tributaries, are included the total becomes almost countless.

Many of these rivers flow quietly above ground, in plain sight but generally unnoticed beyond their neighbourhoods. Their enticing names echo London’s rural past – the Crane, the Darent, the Mutton Brook, the Pool River – or carry a whiff of the exotic – the Ching, the Moselle, the Quaggy, the Silk Stream. These rivers go about their business forgotten in the background and their banks so built up that they can be easily mistaken for canals or drains but many more inner London waterways have been deliberately hidden. London’s landscape was shaped by the hills and valleys these rivers created, but as the city grew they began to get in the way and were buried, bit by bit, under layers of streets and houses.

Excellent Rivers of London map by Stephen Walter

Excellent Rivers of London map by Stephen Walter

In the old days London needed all the rivers it could get.  Rivers provided for almost everything for drinking water, for harbours and wharves, for mills, for tanneries, and for sluicing away the waste from both the people and the industries that they created. Long before the Victorians created the modern wonder that are the London sewers, the rivers were London acted as a natural sewage system.

One of if not the first river to be buried over was the Walbrook.  Not many people know of the Walbrook but it was the cornerstone on which London was founded.  Whatever London was when the Romans arrive was centred around the junction of the Walbrook and the Thames.  By the 1460’s though it was paved over and forgotten though archeologists working on the London Cross Rail project have found grisly evidence of some of the first inhabitants of London around Liverpool Street Station.  The debris dug from the river – hoes and ploughshares, chisels and saws, scalpels and spatulas, the heads of forgotten gods and a collection of 48 human skulls tell the earliest London tales.

As London began to grow at the end of the 18th century, and then to mushroom beyond human comprehension during the 19th century, the rivers became a big problem. Floods, filth, stench and disease put off Georgian and Victorian house-buyers. In Mayfair, the Tyburn was tucked away under mews. In West Norwood, the Effra was buried deep under grids of new Victorian villas.

The Fleet was legendarily filthy but it was also hundreds of yards wide towards its discharge into the Thames and a major waterway. It was redesigned as a Venetian-style canal by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London but its refurbishment didn’t last too long before being overtaken by the then grim reality of urban life. Jonathan Swift, in 1710, wrote about the Fleet filled with:

“Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts and Blood, 
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud, 
Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood”

This awful environment led to many of the worst and poorest parts of London. Few wanted to live there but the prisoners of Newgate, Clerkenwell, Ludgate, Fleet & Bridewell prisons had little choice.  So bad was the river that the locals took to digging wells for fresh water and many were proclaimed as having healing properties, though many now, like the rivers themselves can only be found in name only such as the famous Sadlers Wells theatre.

Jacobs Island or whites now know more euphemistically as St. Saviours Creek. The entrance to the forgotten River Neckinger. It doesn't take too much imagination in this photo to think of how it was once the home to the legendary Bill Sykes in Dickens' Oliver Twist.

Jacobs Island now more euphemistically as St. Saviours Creek. The entrance to the forgotten River Neckinger. It doesn’t take too much imagination in this photo to think of how it was once the home to the legendary Bill Sykes in Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Everything from Welsh cheese to coals from Newcastle arrived at the Fleet wharves, and even the stones for Old St. Paul’s Cathedral were unloaded here.   It is no surprise though  that the lower Fleet was culverted in huge storm sewer tunnels where it has remained ever since.  In effect the grand old River Fleet is one massive drain.

So many of the rivers may be hidden but they remain none the less, a hidden reminder of that London is a city that runs on many axis both on, above and below the ground. It is very hard to stop a river from flowing, so they have merely been diverted into the sewer system, often as part of Joseph Bazalgette’s monumental tunnelling programme during the 1860s and 1870s.

Even the hidden rivers can still be seen if you know where to look, flowing through culverts and under gratings. Sometimes they are hidden in plain sight. The Hampstead and Highgate Ponds are former reservoirs created by damming two streams that form the Fleet. Regent’s Park Lake was originally fed by the Tyburn, while the Serpentine was landscaped from the Westbourne in 1731 for the benefit of George II’s consort, Queen Caroline. Unfortunately the sewage problem eventually rendered both rivers unsuitable for ornamental ponds, and they were diverted away.

They also shaped London’s hills and valleys, a landscape layered over but still visible. Mysteriously steep roads, such as Pentonville Rise, make sense when seen as the sides of the Fleet Valley. The sharp dip as Piccadilly passes Green Park shows us where the Tyburn once crossed the road. The Oval cricket ground  is oval because it was built into a bend in the Effra. Holborn Viaduct is a bridge with no river built on the site of an ancient Fleet crossing. From the viaduct the valley of the Fleet stretches away below, wide and deep, now occupied by Farringdon Street.

Holborn Viaduct. The River Fleet used to run where Farringdon Street now is.

Holborn Viaduct. The River Fleet used to run where Farringdon Street now is.

Names also contain clues obvious only in retrospect. Kilburn is named after the upper reaches of the Westbourne, also responsible for Bayswater, and once crossed by the Knight’s Bridge. Wandsworth has its very own river, the Wandle. Peckham Rye means “village by the River Peck”. Streets retain the river names: Effra Road and Westbourne Green, or just simply Neckinger and Walbrook.

Even Westminster Abbey itself once sat upon Thorney Island, now almost impossible to distinguish and unknown to but a handful, including the street planner who gave us Thorney Street.  It was a low lying marshy island, perhaps suitably mystical being surrounded by rivers to build such a magnificent monument to God.   Whilst all but the Thames has gone, the island would still flood more regularly if not for the Embankment.

Thorney Island

Westminster and Westminster Abbey have their origins on the all but lost Thorney Island.

Lost rivers really are everywhere, even in the places Londoners think they know intimately. The Tyburn runs directly beneath Buckingham Palace. The Walbrook is probably the most direct route into the Bank of England, running in a tunnel under its vaults. The Earl’s Sluice curves its way past Millwall football ground. The lost rivers link the familiar – the Royal Parks, Mayfair, the City, the South Bank – to places few visit – the back streets of Camberwell, Croydon, Earlsfield, Elephant and Castle, Gospel Oak, Kentish Town, Mitcham, Swiss Cottage, and West Norwood for example.

In a way London’s rivers are invisible threads which still bind London together even if we don’t know how or why.   And if all of these lost rivers are simply to hard to find then I direct you to one of my favourite secret spots in London.  Right in the middle of upmarket Sloane Square and it’s well-heeled tube station, there is a large green bridge or conduit that spans across the tracks and the platforms alike.  Few believe me when I tell them it isn’t a passenger tunnel or full of cabling but is actually the River Westbourne, the same river that ran through Hyde Park and Hamsptead and which also lends its name to Kilburn.  All in plain view of a generally very unknowing public.

River Westbourne through Sloane Square Station

River Westbourne running through and above Sloane Square Station

More and more people are becoming aware of the hidden rivers of London and there is a government study going on to see about bringing some of them back to life above ground.  It was understandable at the time that Georgians and Victorians would want to hide them away but now with technology and a sewer system, bringing these waterways back to life could enhance the landscape and quality of life immeasurably.

I hoped you liked this look at some of the secret and lost rivers of London.   If you liked this post this you might be interested in the excellent London’s Lost Rivers book by Paul Talling.

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Kate Middleton is having another baby. There, I’ve said it… I hate her!

It’s not often I write anything like my opinion on anything but today it has been announced that Kate Middleton is expecting her third child.  Hurray!  Good for the future 3rd in line sprog to the British throne.

However, I really believe that it is irresponsible for people who live on social support to deliberately have large families.   Like it or not, Kate and William are on social support.  They enjoy lives of enormous privilege at our cost.

Whilst I don’t begrudge them having 2 children and when it comes to Royalty you always need a spare just in case.  Why 3?   It is us who have to pay for them.  In 25 years time it will be us paying for 3 senior royal children along with 3 royal households, 3 protection squads, 3 of everything when otherwise 2 would do.

I have always had a really low opinion of Kate Middleton, as much as I give her any thought whatsoever.  Just what does she do?  What has she ever done?  Despite what the media claim, I don’t think she is all that.  She looks old and dowdy and is probably the less beautiful of the Middleton sisters.   That’s ok, not everyone can look beautiful, as no doubt her balding at the age of 19 husband must know.  However, there is seemingly no redemption in her character either.

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She comes from a very well to do middle-class family who enjoyed a very expensive private education and then went to University solely it seemed at the time and still today to throw herself at Prince William.  In fact, she was almost a subject of scorn in the media back then as it was so obvious that the only time she got off her lazy behind was when  was fawning over William

Finally, since leaving University, she barely had any real job whatsoever.   She spent around 18 months trying to set up her own business but couldn’t get that off the ground.  I’m not sure why as it took me around 10 minutes to start mine and with none of the wealth or support she must have had.

Then she tried her hand at being a purchaser for a high-street store but quit after a few months as it wasn’t for her.   I’m guessing it was the whole ‘work’ thing that wasn’t for her.

Finally she fell back on ‘working’ for her parents online company before she got herself hitched.

She has been particularly workshy since she got married, even more so than her husband who at least got himself a cushy job as a rescue pilot.  Even so his levels of public engagements have been shockingly low and far surpassed by The Queen and Prince Philip who are both in their 90’s.

Just what is Kate good for, excluding the happy news from today?   Does anyone actually know what her voice sounds like?  Princess Diana was forever on the news at public engagements and lending her name to various good causes.  The only good cause Kate seems to believe in his social climbing and living off the work and wealth of others.

Kate Middleton represents the worst of female aspirations – to be such a completely empty vessel that her only definition as a human being is who she married and to whom she gave birth.    So yeah, I’m just overjoyed to be paying out for another one of her sprogs.  Let’s hope unlike their mother, they can do a days work between the 3 of them.

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