On Thursday, in a corner of an office in Brewhouse Yard, three people talked about “writing London”. The event, organised by the London Society, featured three panellists: Tom Bolton, author of London’s Lost Rivers – A Walkers Guide; Rachel Holdsworth, best known for her work for Londonist and City Metric and one of my favourite London journalists; and Andrew Humphreys, the person behind Paradise Road, a small, independent publisher of non-fiction books about London whose debut title was Peter Watts’s Up In Smoke – The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station.
I enjoyed the evening and later headed through the dark towards a bus stop with my head full of renewed convictions and bright ideas. Rachel had confirmed me in my daily irritation with so much ill-informed reporting on the capital by national media, notably when dealing with City Hall. All three speakers recognised in different ways that everyone constructs their own version of London in their minds from layers of history, familiar routes and locations and personal knowledge and experience – something Jonathan Raban explored so skilfully in Soft City – and that the vastness of the place and the infinity of its past make it hard to hold in your head all at once. I allowed myself to fantasise that this very website might grow into a place where many different writers’ Londons could be brought together. And I resolved to at last write something about Up In Smoke, a book that achieves several of the things contemporary writing of London should.
Keen to support a small London publisher and being an admirer of Peter Watts, I bought a copy when it came out a year ago and would have written about it at my former home had Watts not done so himself. It tells the story of perhaps the most loved building in the city in rich and telling detail, illuminating in the process a larger story of the capital’s evolution over time and into the future.
Those of us for whom Battersea Power Station was long associated more with a pig inflatable on a Pink Floyd album cover than the mass production of urban heat and light will learn of the hostility it attracted when planned for its original purpose: even George V, a chain smoker, wrote to the then health minister Neville Chamberlain in 1929, expressing his concerns about pollution. Yet the original building, its appearance shaped by architect Giles Gilbert Scott, also responsible for red telephone kiosks and Liverpool Cathedral, was soon lauded for its combination of majesty and intricacy: a “flaming altar of the modern temple of power,” the Daily Herald declared.
For a monument of such cultural status, the power station did not enjoy a long peak in its working career. The last of its four great chimneys did not go up until 1955, by which time obsolescence was already beckoning. The decades since its closure are, in many respects, more instructive about the city’s history. Watts takes us through a long comedy of grand schemes and their successive failures, elegantly capturing how the power station became a kind of receptacle for spectacular ambitions, governance shortcomings and oppositional conservationism.
Battles of a type very familiar today between the forces of lefty preservation and laissez faire redevelopment, each often as myopic as the other, have raged over the silenced pile since the early 1980s. “At Battersea Power Station, power, property and politics were inextricably combined,” Watts writes and notes, rather sadly, that there was “no common ground” between the anti-Tory, anti-developer campaigners who appointed themselves “community” guardians of the building and the privatising Thatcherites of Wandsworth Council.
One admirable strand of the book is Watts’s detecting that the potential for a solution that made sense in heritage, aesthetic and financial terms and served the interests of the city too did, at times exist. If only the right people had been got around the right table at the right time. He anticipates the work now underway on and around the power station – part of the larger Vauxhall-Nine Elms regeneration programme, and still morphing – as reducing it to “a brandmark…one element in an oversized sculpture park celebrating the egocentric excesses of 21st century architecture.” Yet at least it will still be there, hopefully splendidly restored and fit to endure “as indomitable as the Thames”.
Up In Smoke is a fine example of how to “write London”. Buy a copy here.