Fairly secret disco

A free sample of ‘What is crouching and why does it end?’

Linking every station on London’s Underground to a movie made at, near or to do with it, over 365 illustrated pages with numerous detailed maps, the guide imagines the city as a film programme at the legendary Scala film club at Kings Cross in the 1980s.

It investigates, station to station, the links between David Bowie’s Fitzrovia and the Chelsea of the Rolling Stones, Dalek movies and ‘Blowup’, and the Ladbroke Grove of ‘Performance’, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Alfie’, Hawkwind, and the film of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novel ‘The Final Programme’.

It’s a guide to London’s myriad boroughs and communities, its buildings, epic structures and their divergent histories, but mainly it shows how they’re all joined together through the world’s first subterranean transport system. Over seven connected essays spanning pre-Roman London to the author, Tim Concannon’s, eyewitness account of Brexit Day 2019 outside Parliament, the guide surveys more than 300 feature films and asks the question: will London ever be this cool again?

Buy it for £4.

DRM-free PDF, instant download. Free updates when we bring out new editions. You know it makes sense…

Update: Stand by for Acton! April 2021’s second edition includes the Crossrail line, opening in 2022…

  • The 1967 Walls Sky Ray lolly ad with Doctor Who and the Daleks, at Acton Main Line…
  • Too many truckers in trouble in Berkshire (‘Hell Drivers’ in Slough! ‘The Hi-Jackers’ in Southall! The list goes on…)
  • And Flash Gordon conquers Romford.

Now enjoy two excerpts, the first from the station to station guide, the second describing a dérive outside the Westminster Parliament on Brexitmas Eve…

Acton Mainline – Walls Sky Ray advert (1967)
Acton Mainline Station is due to be added to the London Underground network with the opening of the “Elizabeth” line, or Crossrail, sometime in 2022. It’s also the former site of Walls ice cream production in London.

British cinema audiences saw the Daleks on the big screen in the Sixties not once, not twice, but three times! As well as the two Dalek films (including ‘Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.‘ at Parsons Green on the Scala map) this 1967 Walls cinema ad for Sky Ray lollies brought Dalek mania back to cinemas with a weird version of Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor, played with his hands over his face by Gerry Grant.

Combining the “thrilling double flave of raspberry and orange”, each lolly came with a colourful cigarette card which you could glue into an album, ‘Dr Who’s Space Adventure Book’ (sold separately) to illustrate a nine-page prose adventure ‘Daleks Invade Zaos’. The album explained that the Doctor’s allies the Sky Ray Space Raiders had a mobile HQ in the Sky Ray ship, shaped like the ice lolly (there are cutaways of its interior to explain the space vehicle’s workings). In the 1970s, Walls brought out a Dalek-specific chocolate and mint lolly, ‘Dalek’s Death Ray!’ (You know, for kids!) Individual instalments of a story, this time focused on the Daleks, were printed on the backs of the lolly rather than on cigarette cards.

Walls cornet ice cream was also advertised on TV by Gerry Anderson’s ‘Supercar’ characters (the cornet “with a new streamlined top!” in case you wanted to eat it in an air tunnel while avoiding parasitic drag).

Rivals J. Lyons & Co. Ltd. recruited Anderson’s Lady Penelope from ‘Thunderbirds’ to advertise Fab ice lollies (the lolly for girls) and the crew of Fireball XL5 for Zoom (which featured three stages of flavour, plus a free cigarette card of a rocket ship or steam locomotives inside every wrapper, and which was – presumably – aimed more at boys).

The rival to the Walls factory in Acton was the huge Lyons production facility in Hammersmith called Cadby Hall, last seen in a few episodes of The Professionals on ITV before it was demolished in the mid-1980s. It was the the birthplace of the first ever business computer, LEO. Margaret Thatcher worked there as a chemist in 1951.

J. Lyons & Co. Ltd’s Cadby Hall factory, Hammersmith, from a staff leaflet, 1952.

Fortunately, Britain’s ice cream wars never led to an actual conflict in outer space between the Dalek Empire and Supermarinated humanity, the consequences of which are still unimaginable.

There was also a decidedly less trippy black & white version of the Daleks Sky Ray ad for TV spots. Despite the lack of colour, the Walls black & white TV ads of the mid-1960s are notable for their signalling of hip, modish taste, to go along with the frozen margarine or sugar water plus fruit flavouring or cocoa solids of their ice lollies and choc ices. An ad for Walls Cornish ice cream looks like the opening shots of Julie Christie in ‘Darling’.

An advert set in an art gallery features Frank (Captain Peacock from ‘Are You Being Served’) Thornton – who appears on the Scala map in ‘The Bed Sitting Room’, ’30 is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia’ and ‘Gonks Go Beat’ – enjoying the “swinging flavour” of a Walls Caramel Flip ice cream choc bar while digging some modern sculpture.

Cool, sophisticated fashions and trends aimed at Britain’s youth and economically ascendant middle classes were co-branded with Wall’s ice cream products. In a TV-watching household of the mid-Sixties, parents made the financial decisions but the pressure was coming from the kids to “get with it” by way of choc ices.

Walls cinema ads of the period – aimed directly at kids and their pocket money, in a film theatre rather than at home – are colourful affairs drawing on the modish animation style of Gerard Hoffnung, the paintings of Picasso and Paul Klee, and Britain’s leading trend-setters besides the Beatles and Rolling Stones: the Daleks.

London’s love affair with sugar has a long history but was given extra impetus by the end of sweet rationing in February 1953. From the brink of the Fifties, and ever since, the confectionary industry has benefited from decades of youth culture, hip fashions and the handsome stylings of modern jazz and modernist art and architecture. In theatrical exhibition, the presence in the intermission of an usherette with a tray of ice lollies has become an indelible image of British cinema-going even though the practice effectively ended with the advent of multiplexes in the 1980s. At least from the straight, male perspective, that gaze was often a subversively sexualised one, in a civic space shaped by token gestures to propriety and censorship.

In her formative text on this subject ‘Stars in the Aisles: Cinema usherettes, identity and ideology‘ academic Eva Balogh relates the work of Keith Farley, Wolverhampton-based local historian:

“Usherettes were wonderful. I was really in love with usherettes. I was pretty young remember so I suppose it was seeing young ladies wearing uniforms and being in the dark which really affected me. It sounds a bit stupid now but I used to love going to the cinema just to see the usherettes.”

There could have been no choc ices in British cinemas to create this frisson without ice cream. The main Walls factory was built in 1922 and was near to Acton Main Line station, now on the Crossrail “Liz” line. Along with the underground stations at West and North Acton, Acton Main Line is adjacent to the GWR garden estate, built in the 1920s around the same time as the Walls factory for families of GWP train drivers and staff. If their kids didn’t want to go into the railway industry like their fathers, there was always work at the ice cream factory next door. Walls employed 4000 people in the UK at periods of peak production in 1969. It wasn’t fighting Daleks in a rocket ship but – in the 1960s, at least – it provided a doorway to a giddy, colourful world of delight and permanent, skilled employment that would have been unthinkable to the grandparents of people living on the GWR garden estate.

Walls Factory and train line, Acton, 1947.

After a 1981 acquisition by Unilever, the Walls Acton factory was exterminated in 1988, the year before Doctor Who began its hiatus from BBC TV, and production was shifted to its factory in Gloucester.

The fate of Britain’s independent cinemas, Doctor Who, and the Acton factory as a place of employment in the late 1980s are connected by one man: Margaret Thatcher’s policy advisor and Unilver executive John Hoskyns. A vocal Eurosceptic, said to be a mentor of the Svengali of Brexit Dominic Cummings, on the basis of no economic expertise to speak of, Hoskyns wrote the 1977 ‘Stepping Stones‘ report which became foundational to Thatcher’s worldview of British business: weakening state intervention (in mergers and acquisitions, such as Uniliver’s acquisition of Walls, or of the growth of cinema multiplexes) and seeing Europe and trade unions as hostile to economic growth. Doctor Who and the Daleks are now among the BBC’s most valuable pieces of Intellectual Property but in 1988 its inexorable slide in the ratings meant BBC bosses preferred to scrap it rather than invest in its reinvigoration.

In 2020, in the middle of a pandemic but also a surging London property bubble, the Acton Walls factory site was turned into flats and sold off.

From the last chapter, ‘1318 Days Later’…

To be scrupulously fair to the Brexit enthusiasts assembled next to the Mother of Parliaments on 31st January 2020, earlier in the day the mood had been – if anything – amiable, suffused with the excitement of a child’s birthday party. Your humble author mingled with the celebrants on the grassy area outside Westminster, flanked by statues of Mandela, Gandhi and Churchill, to spare you from having the experience firsthand.

Whitehall, the major thoroughfare from Parliament to Trafalgar Square, was closed off for the day by dozens of police. Britain was exiting its major trading and political relationship, with a marquee tent erected in the middle of the road and a Brexit mum’s and dad’s disco in the heart of government. Attended by about sixty people, all were in lemon-coloured hi-viz bibs except for the cheery deejay. His vest was distinctively orange to help him stand out from the other people, all of whom were in late middle-age, and who were looking around at the non-existent crowds also enjoying the party atmosphere in the throbbing centre of what was once – and could again be – the greatest Empire on Earth, all of it governed for centuries from the stolid neoclassical buildings around them. (“Could” is doing some heavy lifting in that sentence. If anyone was up to heavy lifting, though, it was the beefy master race digging the vibes by Parliament on Brexit Day). It would be unfair to call the small crowd exclusively white. There was one turbaned Sikh guy struggling with a saffron wrap in high winds, but then isn’t there always a lone Sikh guy at fascist gatherings in England in the 21st Century?

I didn’t have time to note down a complete record of the Brexit Day spin master’s set, but an aural snapshot included, in the order in which the tracks were played :

‘Shang-A-Lang’ Bay City Rollers
‘Eton Rifles’ The Jam
‘You’ve Really Got Me’ The Kinks
‘Poison Ivy’ The Lambrettas.

The Jam’s 1979 single ‘Eton Rifles’ is a song literally about the difficulties for people from Britain’s underclass to protest a system rigged against them by jeering former public school boys from Eton, such as belated Brexit-supporter and now Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The “rifles” is a reference to Eton College’s cadet corps.

‘Sup up your beer and collect your fags,
There’s a row going on down near Slough’

This is song-writer Paul Weller’s unencrypted reference not only to cigarettes, but also to the Eton college tradition of ‘fagging’, Eton college being near Slough in Berkshire. ‘Fagging’ is a regime whereby younger students at the elite school are brutalized and often sexually abused as part of their conditioning and acculturation within the rigid hierarchy of the English class system. Johnson and numerous cabinet ministers and civil servants who work in Whitehall will no doubt have been on both the delivery and receiving end of this regime of violence, sarcasm and sodomy; what Mustapha Khayati writing in ‘The Poverty of Student Life’ may well have referred to as an ‘initiation which echoes the rites of more primitive societies with bizarre precision’. Weller had read in a newspaper about a lunchtime right-to-work march through Slough in 1978. The marchers broke off to attack pupils from Eton who had been yelling and sneering at them.

Weller’s been critical of nom-dom rockers like Roger Daltry and Ringo Starr who came out for Brexit:

“Ringo doesn’t even live here man! […] It’s the expat thing, isn’t it? Let your canon off in your villa in Portugal, wave your flag. […] It’s funny how the old guard end up so reactionary after a life in rock’n’roll. For me, being in a band and traveling opened my eyes to so many things I wouldn’t have seen if I’d stayed in Woking.”

Were the many-layered nuances of this Mod revival classic in the minds of the small crowd reliving the school disco ambience on Whitehall as they shimmied, inchoately, to distract themselves from icy January gusts? Or were they thinking about whether they would fit into a pair of grey Sta Prest slacks, ever again?

A friendly retired TV camera man called Steve handed out his evangelical Christian leaflets. A sallow-cheeked young white man in a black hoodie talked intensely about the future to another man, as his black female friend (possibly girl friend) looked on, looking unsure about what was going on. A black guy in a Union Jack suit and red plastic shades took photos with friendly skinheads. Chinese, Korean, Japanese tourists in smart coats took selfies with their selfie sticks. There was a smattering of Italian, Spanish, French accents in the crowd of a few hundred nonplussed onlookers. An old bearded man in a beret sat on his own. He held a placard with the EU flag and the “deaths head” symbol of the German ‘SS’ above it. (The EU was formed as a direct response to World War Two, in order to prevent the rise of something similar to the German Third Reich in Europe, but this wasn’t the time for soundbites). He was, by coincidence, in one of the groups most at risk from Covid-19 a few weeks later when, according to scurrilous rumours which emanated from the buildings around us on January 31st, Brexit edgelord Dominic Cummings was prepared to throw the elderly under the bus during the pandemic in order to protect the UK economy.

An elderly white woman sat across the road opposite from the entrance to Parliament. Her stall had leaflets and was beside a large placard itemizing a very long Bill of Rights. It had ten demands, including “restore our right to self-defence and to bear arms”, to “End the cultural Marxist agenda and destruction of the family in our education system, law and public institutions”, “no EU flags on official buildings”, and “Full Disclosure and prosecutions for those involved in crimes and responsible for cover up of the grooming gangs”. (That meant “Muslims”). There was a lot going on in her set of demands. At least with the flags point she was going to be happy with one out of ten.

Although there were many young people, and many Europeans, and a smattering of people from across the human Pantone scale of skin patination, most were old, cold, redolent of mould. Some may have been great poets, one or two the next Charles Manson. Most of them were nobodies.

It was hard to actively dislike most of them, though. They just seemed lost and needed a hug and someone to listen to them. The small crowd – in the daytime it can only have been a few hundred – seemed like the kinds of people who hadn’t done all that well in school, who are attracted to ‘Crop Circle Studies’, anti-vaccination groups and other borderline cult movements that offer over-arching explanations of complex things. Cranks, yes; but cranks who’d not strayed that far from the path of human kindness and empathy. They were looking for some kind of truth, and for friendship. This certainly wasn’t a gathering of the hardened racists and angry bigots typically associated with Brexit and Nigel Farage, at least by their fiercest critics on the Remain side.

Along with several of the “voices of the Brexit majority” whose views were promoted recursively by the BBC and other broadcasters before and after the 2016 referendum, the boss of Wetherspoons pubs, Tim Martin, incurred public opprobrium less than two months after Brexit Day when he announced in a 23rd March video – while apparently intoxicated – that during the coronaoutbreak he was laying off 80% of his 40 000 staff, without pay beyond March 22nd. Boris Johnson had reluctantly shut all licensed premises on March 20th in an effort to try to slow down the virus. Martin, said to have a personal fortune in excess of £40 million, had demanded that his pubs stay open despite the very obvious risk of spreading the deadly disease. “I’ve so much enjoyed talking to you in my pub crawls over the weeks and best of luck,” Martin slurs at the ends the video, having suggested to his now suddenly unemployed former staff that they go and work at Tesco supermarkets, which was hiring to meet the influx of panicking shoppers.

This level of malicious disregard for other people, while perhaps representative of Brexit’s more prominent backers, wasn’t the vibe outside Parliament on Brexit Day, I must report.

Mostly there were smiles, a sense of companionship, people not especially used to finding common cause with others, now forming fleeting friendships. Perhaps only for a few minutes. I couldn’t find it in my heart to hate them even though they were identical to the people who bullied me at school, and they were now burning down their own country in the most imbecilic, capricious and unnecessary way imaginable. An Irish film-maker roved around the space, filming the assembly on a beautiful wind-up Bolex 16mm camera, made in Switzerland.

“It is what it is” he said, when I asked him what he thought of the whole thing. “Fuck them, they did it to themselves,” I remarked, mentioning that I moved to Scotland several years before this debacle got started. “I can’t say that I disagree,” my Irish comrade in historical documentation replied.

Even the English Nazis were happy on London’s Brexit Day, though you sensed that probably wouldn’t last for long. As it got darker around 4pm, the anti-vaxx crowd began to drift away as more and more cheeky fascists drifted into Parliament Square. Some wore berets and bomber jackets. Others braved the cold in Union Jack tshirts which had – at some time in their lives – fitted them.

As I walked away, I was passed in the street by a Nazi stuffed into a camouflage jacket. The man’s haircut was a kind of firework explosion of salt and pepper rather like that sported by Eddie Hunter, played by Simon Henderson in Eastenders, the keyboard player in ‘The Banned’, the highly political iteration of the pop combo formed by youth in Albert Square in the BBC soap opera in 1986, and which scored a top twenty hit with ‘Something Outa Nothing‘ performed by Letitia Dean and Paul Medford. (Medford has gone onto huge success on the West End stage in musicals such as ‘The Lion King’, which is even better for tourism than white supremacy if you can imagine that.) The Nazi’s coat was emblazoned with a fabric badge which combined the Cross of St George with the crosshairs of a gun sight. He bobbed past me, a spring in his step, off to the fascist disco in his head.

What moment in time during recent English history is it that the unsorted wing nuts of Brexit wanted to return to, besides comforting selective memories of their misspent youth? It can’t be before the end of World War Two because they went on endlessly about the Blitz. A pub in Kettering, Northamptonshire sang in Brexitmas with a chorus of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ even though no one there looked over the age of seventy five, and therefore able to remember saturation bombing of the Midlands by the German Lufftwaffe. It also can’t be after 1972, because that’s when the UK passed legislation to join the European Community.

A median point between 1945 and 1972 is around 1958, the year of the race riots in Notting Hill. Is that really where the Brexiters want to return to? Mosley’s mob taking to the streets with koshes and broken railings? End the Cultural Marxist agenda. Expose the grooming gang cover ups. Hang Tony Blair. Freedom. F****** do one!

The former head of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy unit at 10 Downing Street, Ferdinand Mount, asked in the London Review of Books:

‘Is this then the new end of history, a sort of low-tar fascism which you don’t actually have to inhale?’