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Sunday, 26 July 2015

Harry Beck (1902-1974)

Leytonstone is a long way from the target rich environment of central London. A journey east from Stratford rather than the rather more usual West - OK so we'd earlier trailed around the Spitalfields Vintage Fair - parting with the folding stuff only for a leather flower for M and a story in a box "Not all who wander are lost" for me from - . Worship Road is a thoroughly unremarkable terraced street and in many ways the blue plaque that marks number 14 may seem out of place. It marks the birthplace of Harry Beck, an engineering draftsman with London Underground. Just another working Londoner who adapted his knowledge, of electrical circuits to create what was voted in 2006 as the second favourite British design of the 20th century - the Tube map. Used thousands, tens of thousands of time a day by Londoners and others to navigate the capital - and many many times more when you see the influence that it has had on various other Metro maps from around the world (Beck also worked on designs for the Paris Metro map). This influence is traced in Mark Ovenden's excellent "Metro Maps of the world" and has also been cited in comparison with the work of Piet Mondrian as a nexus of art and commerce. And its freaking everywhere - we ourselves have a London Underground bedset not to mention a copy of the London Game (strongly recommended in assisting the small people in London navigation). The map came about as a sparetime project that Beck embarked upon in the early 30s. He submitted the idea to Frank Pick, the then head of London Underground and responsible for the creation of the iconic LU designs that persist to this day - a fact acknowledged in Beck's blue plaque utilisation of LUs house font - New Johnston. It was revolutionary in that unlike pretty much any other map it doesn't represent geographical accuracy. Beck reckoned, quite rightly that for your average commuter what was important was how to get around the city: how to get from one station to another, and the changes needed to manage that feat. A side effect of this that I've found is that many Londoners are blissfully unaware of how close some Tube stations are to each other. His idea was initialled trialled in 1931 and given its first release in 1933. It has of course been continually updated and that is where the trouble started. In 1960 the Victoria Line was added to the map without his knowledge by a publicity officer, Harold Hutchinson, this and numerous other tweaks angered Beck. He embarked upon legal proceedings, trying to regain control of his creation. This stress adversely affected his wifes health. He gave up the fight in 1965 and the responsibility for the map passed to another designer Paul Garbutt. In his redesigning of the Underground map Garbutt returned to Becks earlier ideas while taking account of the increasingly complicated reality of subterranean London. Beck however continued to work on designs for the Underground map until his death in 1974. Sadly his work was only recognised posthumously - every LU map now bears the legend "This diagram is an evolution of the original design conceived in 1931 by Harry Beck". He has a locomotive named after him, and has been featured on stamps and a substantial presence in the London Tansport museum in Covent Garden - but surely his most meaningful memorial are the millions of safe journeys made on the tube.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

13 minutes and 37 overs

There are those who will say that todays posts is a blatant attempt to draw attention away from a dismal England performance at Lords, and they may very well be right. 37 overs with Stuart Broad batting at number 8 top scoring with 25 runs is simply not good enough. Not against a mediocre side, and Australia while not in the pantheon of earlier Ashes teams are not that. After a couple of days away from work we had a quiet day at home today - well M did. It was open day at the Abbey and I wandered into town and took a stroll around the theatre of screams. I decided to pick up this seasons away strip. Theres something something vaguely transgressive about black football shirts even in the modern eras of technicolour refs. I didn't however linger as I had a date at the Arts Picturehouse. For once it wasn't one Casablanca to look forward to but sadly will be missing Sunset Boulevard in a couple of weeks time - don't think well be giving A Clockwork Orange a go. It was Oliver Hirschbiegel's 13 minutes. Hirschbiegel's Downfall is a terrifying insight into the last days of the Reich. 13 minutes an account of its establishment and the bravery of anyone swimming against the stream in those kinds of circumstance. It has the dreaded words "based on a true story" attached to it - words that send a chill down anyone with two braincells to rub togethers spine. It equates to an admission of "OK, so we sexed it up a little" on behalf of the filmmaker. The real Georg Elser, the focus of the film, seems a rather more nuanced figure. Elser attempted to assassinate Hitler on 8 November 1939 in the early stages of the second world war. His motives seem unclear - the film seems to cast him as a conflicted Christian who was trying to avoid greater bloodshed by disposing of Der Fuhrer. The truth seems somewhat more confused. Elser was a member of the Federation of Woodworkers Union and the Rotfrontkämpferbund, the Communist paramilitaries that opposed the Nazis in the politically polarised 1930s but Elser attested that he never attended any more than a couple of times. While he voted Communist it was only because he felt that they defended the rights of German Workers. His Christian credentials seem less than convincing as well. He was raised as a Protestant but dodnt regularly attend church until his plans were in motion. In short he seems what I guess we would now call a lone wolf killer. Someone who saw the Nazis and Hitler in particular as sure to lead Germany into darkness. After seeing Bonhoeffers plaque a while back I couldn't help but see parallels - although of course the two men tried to oppose Nazi tyranny in very different ways. I guess that 13 minutes asks that hypothetical - if killing one man could save millions would you do it? Of course Hitler didn't die - 8 people did. however. Elser shared Bonhoeffer's fate - on 9th April 1945, in the death throes of the Reich he was eliminated perhaps at the personal behest of Hitler at Dachau where he had been transferred after spending the war years at Sachsenhausen.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

First synagogue since the reformation

It isn't just the Christian faith that's commemorated around Spitalfields and Brick Lane of course. For centuries the area has been a haven or incomers and their faiths. First the Huguenots fleeing persecution in France made it their home, then came the Jews. By the time that Jack was plying his trade in the area the majority of Jews thereabouts were Ashkenazi, from Central Europe their impact can be seen in language - they gave us schmutter and schmooze, schtick and spiel. Earlier, in 1657, in the middle of Cromwell's protectorate Jews were allowed to resettle in England after their expulsion from the country in 1290. They, of course brought their faith with them and the plaque at the corner of Creechurch Lane and Bury Street commemorates the first synagogue, these were Sephardic Jews from the newly Protestant Netherlands. The vast majority of plaques in the city are devoted either to churchs or the guilds and this dissent makes a nice change. Their are still synagogues in the area, Bevis Marks (complete with guard :( )and others now gone such as the Great Synagogue in Dukes Place although the general population of the area has changed markedly over the last half-century as indeed have their surroundings - a process that is still ongoing the entire area is under reconstruction at the moment. Wayne and I managed to negotiate the construction areas and found our way to Mitre Square, which up until reacently housed another plaque, one to the Priory of the Holy Trinity, founded by the Black Canons in 1108 until it was dissolved by Henry VIII. It is however perhaps better known, at least in the modern consciousness of the place where Catherine Eddowes, the canonical fourth victim of Jack the Ripper was found inn the early hours of 30th September 1888. She was the second victim attributed to the killer that night an indictment of the conditions in the area at the time. It was on this night night that the contentious "Goulston Street Graffiti" was found and although it was never properly recorded, pre-dating police forensic procedure. It was feared that the graffiti which reportedly ran along the lines of "The Juwes [sic] are the men that will not be blamed for nothing." would inflame anti-Semitic feeling in the area and so it was erased by the police. Again this speaks to the kind of conditions and tensions extant in the area at the time, indeed it was felt that no Englishman would be capable of these kind of acts and therefore must be in some way a "foreigner". Anti-Jewish demonstrations were staged and there was a real danger of social unrest. As outsiders Jews were used as hate figures as we can see from Dickens depiction of Fagin and some of the oft bandied suspects for the Ripper murders are Jewish - reflecting of course the demography of the area.