Napoleon defeated, God dead, confidence up: How one London church reveals our secret history

 

This is a short story about what really happens to the things we think are permanent and powerful. And how they may not be at all what they seem.

 

In 1818, the British Government announced a bonanza of one million pounds to be spent on celebrating victory over Napoleon. Buildings, events, whatever. But make it impressive.

 

One result was a rash of ‘Waterloo churches’ such as Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone – designed and built by Sir John Soane, and completed in 1826.

 

(The picture shows its second, outdoor pulpit: a ballsy move amid the noise and thoroughfare, like a rock band promoting a new album by playing loud from the back of a truck. Turn heads, stop traffic. Or perhaps it was a desperate move. More of that in a moment.)

 

London Marylebone church history

 

Yet once it was finished in 1826, the church saw service for barely100 years.

 

By the 1930s, it was derelict. By 1936, it had been retooled as a warehouse for Penguin Books, who figured they could store inventory for longer in its dry, dark crypt. The crypt was down some stairs, lower than delivery vehicles or wheeled trolleys could get. So they put a slide from a children’s playground going from the street down into the darkness below, and used that as a book chute.

 

Since the second world war, it’s been an art installation space (once exhibiting a piece involving a crucified ape), and a Christian publishing office. There are currently proposals to redevelop the building’s interior, and turn it into a shopping arcade.

 

The building itself is a blank page. Every age has written its own narrative of very different kinds of redemption and salvation on it.

 

First, relief at the defeat of Napoleon and the need to manifest the national feel-good factor. Then, with the addition of the street pulpit, the crisis of faith and the urgent need for 19th-century Anglicanism to attract new adherents out there – to propagandise against Darwin and Owen and the ebbing of the tide, to save the religion itself by street preaching to the masses.

 

It was a books warehouse for Penguin amid the great rise in literacy, with the boom of state education, and the pressing need to serve affordable books to this new, empowered readership, lifted from the slums.

 

Post-war, as attendance lapsed, it became offices – a manifestation of the property developer phenomenon that promised to take all that was old and make it new. The regeneration of space.

 

And finally, the new national mission: shopping. Lift yourself and benefit the nation through consumer spend. Retail therapy as patriotic duty. Self service, customer service and service industry as the new national service; religious service, even.

 

After all, the term for converting money and credit into goods has always been “redemption”.

 

 

Lucky: What happened when I decided to throw away money

 

What follows is a true story. It seems so bizarre to me, even now, that I find it hard to reconcile with myself. Was that really me? Surely I didn’t do anything quite this crazy? But it was. And I did. Though whether it was really crazy or not, you’ll have to judge for yourself.

 

It started with Lisa Lynch. I’ve written before about her. She wrote a fantastic book called The C Word. The planned sequel was to be called Lucky, and while she was writing it, she asked a lot of us for stories from our lives on the theme of luck. As it happened, I had a story – a very strange one. So I sent it to her, and she sent me a note back to say how much she liked it, and planned to incorporate it. When Lisa died, the book remained unfinished. I’ve often thought about posting the story, but the time was never right. Then, the other day, I told it to someone else.

 

It still had a strange, irreducible magic about it. In fact, it freaks me out a bit. So here it is…

 

Danish Kronor nailed to the wall by Matt Potter

I’m a confirmed sceptic, science geek and logical positivist. So I don’t actually believe in luck at all – just average outcomes. This is a bad thing from the point of view of enjoyment, as it means that even when an incredibly good thing happens by chance – I catch a train and get a seat; I find a tenner; I happen across the very thing I’ve been looking for –  I wince.

 

Because I know I’ve just made a withdrawal, as it were, in the bank of average outcomes. The luck bank. And sooner or later, a deposit will be required.

 

So no, luck hasn’t been a great focus of my life. And yet. And yet. The facts still say this all happened.

 

And it all began with the Aphex Twin.

 

I read an interview in the early-1990s in which he put the fact that his noise/chaotic/atonal/uncommercial music had suddenly become hugely successful through absolutely no fault of his own with the fact that he’d recently moved flat. His new basement apartment, he explained, turned out to have been a bank vault before it was converted by the property developer. Aphex Twin, who hadn’t known it when he moved in, said he’d noticed that since the day he moved there, money seemed to keep wanting to come to him. He’d apparently even had a mini-crisis about it, freaked out, got paranoid in a slightly-stoned way maybe, and started trying to avoid making money, even give it away, for fear it was all a wind-up or that it was too good to trust. But the more he freaked, the more unsolicited cheques would arrive, the more cash would be dropped round to his house.

 

I just put that down to being a chaotic bloke who worked hard. He’d obviously forgotten all the productivity (like we all do) and so when records sold, he thought woah, what? Cash? What for? But then it happened.

 

OK, so fast forward to a point, a coupla years later, when I moved into my new house. Completely broke; overstretched; no money. I then split up with my partner, so I suddenly had a whole joint mortgage to pay off on my own, and had just had a job go tits up. As money got lower and lower, then minus, I began living off borrows. Hmm.

 

I was doing a bit of drunk decorating one night (it’s great fun, you get to splash it about like the Stone Roses and stakes is low with a white undercoat in a house you can’t afford to furnish or carpet) and I found an old coin between the floorboards. It was Danish, one of the Krønor with a hole in the middle. So I hung it on a nail over the door, and as I did so, I thought of the Aphex Twin, and then I thought, what the hell, hahahahaha! Then I had another drink. And then, giggling, I went a bit crazy with the old spare holiday currency pot.

 

By dawn, the entire house was a metal detector’s nervous twitch. I had secreted foreign coins inside polyfilla’d walls; wallpapered over old Polish Zloty notes; sealed invalidated French centimes behind skirting; the lot. I had a hangover, and a massive paint headache, I’d fallen asleep without washing and there was white paint on my bed, and I thought, well, that was stupid.

 

Next day was Monday. I got home from a meeting about a job to discover a message on my ansaphone (yeah, that long ago). Some articles I’d written years ago had unaccountably suddenly started selling on syndication, and would I agree to having some cash to let some Brazilian mag print them. But I didn’t think about the Aphex Twin.

 

Then I found a purse, and a diary in a hedge. I called the numbers, the person was happy, she asked me to keep any cash in the purse. There was £30. I didn’t, I just gave it back. That afternoon she came round with £50 to say thanks for everything, and for giving the money back when I could have kept it. In 48 hours, I got an unexpected expenses rebate. A building society got taken over and sent me cash. My phone company said sorry for something I wasn’t aware they’d done, and sent me some cash too.

 

A bell rang in my head. I started to do the Aphex Twin thing, and see what would happen if I actively turned down money. And sure enough, it started coming in.

 

I won’t bore you with details, just to say that the number of odd windfalls was truly freakish, and in direct and inverse proportion to the amount I tried not to earn.

 

On the third day – all this happened in that short a space of time – I  turned down the job offer – which I would normally have jumped at – quite deliberately pricing myself out of it, just because I now figured something would come up anyway, what with my hot streak. Unexpectedly, they came back with a yes. Then an old mate rang to say he’d got a job on a daily and wanted me to do a daily column.

 

It genuinely did start rolling in, the more I tried to waste it. I never do lotteries. But a friend gave me a scratchcard as a joke-shit present, and it won. I never bet. But I bet on the Derby, and made a packet. Before, I’d never say no. But I did, and more and more people came back offering more for whatever it was. I was briefly minted. I bought new furniture I’d never have bought before. I paid off shitloads of mortgage. I even bought a suit and started drinking cocktails. Because I could.

 

Of course, it didn’t last. The momentum, or maybe just the novelty, the sense of liberation, faded. And as it did, I went back to being suspicious of chance, risk-averse, and poorish. I’ve thought about it, and of course it’s the return to the mean – bad luck and good luck are illusory patterns we impose with our minds onto a series of random, or at least disorderly, happenings.

 

But I also think it’s all about an odd ‘cheat’ or jumpstart to your confidence: believing – or even playing without really believing – that you’re ‘lucky’ can give you the balls to make decisions or take paths that you’d otherwise be too craven or risk-averse to take. It’s shamanism, in a way: the berserker’s invulnerability in battle. The hoodoo. The placebo for your sense of adventure and positive risk-taking.

 

It’s not whether you’re lucky at all. (You’re not.) It’s whether you feel lucky.

 

So tell me, punk. Do ya?

 

Zombies, punks & immigrants: What J.G. Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ says about Britain in 2015

 

Tower blocks in Ladbroke Grove, London

 

It’s there if you look for it, snaking like mist around the tower blocks of West London, from Acton to Ladbroke Grove. An atmosphere. A message for us, maybe.

 

This part of London was the inspiration and setting for JG Ballard as he wrote his 1975 dystopian novel High Rise.

 

In the book, life for residents of a luxury high-rise development degenerates as they turn inwards, shutting off the world outside. Soon, the usual (1970s) assortment of malfunctioning elevators, power cuts, small annoyances, neighbourhood frictions, and petty tiffs spiral into terrifying violence along class and block floor lines. As factions develop and amplify, the block tumbles into savagery and eventually, cannibalism and total isolation.

 

So what? High Rise is a dystopian novel; one from 40 years ago. That’s what they were like. What has it got to do with reality? And more to the point, what does it have to do with us?

J G Ballard High Rise( 1st Edition)

The ’70s was a time of huge anxiety around social cohesion. In Britain, it was the heyday of Class War, Punk, the National Front, and heightened paranoia about immigration, domestic and international terrorism and Britain’s relationship with Europe. Fear of Armageddon was measured by the Doomsday Clock’s minutes-to-midnight time. The Left, with the Labour Party having seemed so powerful, with a charismatic, modernising leader (for Tony Blair, read Harold Wilson) until so recently, was fragmenting, running out of steam, and turning on itself.

 

Across the developed West, recession and stagnation combined with high rates of urbanisation and urban development (all those high rises) to put fear of urban crime at an all time high. Ballard’s Britain in the early 1970s was beset by power cuts, strikes, and shortages of everything from bread to water. Industrial action caused backlogs of refuse (striking binmen) and cadavers (striking cemetery workers). In 1975, New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy – so close that emergency services faced the prospect of paralysis. Public blocks went unrepaired, living conditions degenerated. The following year, West London saw the second wave of Notting Hill race riots. By 1977, New York had descended into lawlessness amid a blackout. The same summer saw the Battle of Lewisham, with National Front, locals and antifascists in pitched battles across South east London.

 

The social fabric, the contract we made with each other, seemed to be letting us down just when we needed it to protect and comfort us.

 

To those who remembered it a decade on, it must have seemed that Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” was less a credo than a statement of fact. The masses were fundamentally hostile; or at least, they were in competition with us, for whatever we wanted to take for ourselves and our family. They were everywhere, and they wanted to raid our pockets: communists pushing redistribution of wealth at home; criminals on our streets; strikers on the shop floor; immigrants at the gates; Europeans around the negotiating table.

 

In this context, the Conservatives’ famous Saatchi & Saatchi-produced 1979 General Election campaign poster, with its advancing, shuffling queue, looks very different.

 

 

Saatchi Labour isn't working 1979 general election

 

This fear of the hordes, the masses – the Other, who looks like us but means us harm – was also behind the high 1970s’ other big cultural explosion: the zombie movie.

 

A slow trickle had started a few years before against a backdrop of student riots, assassinations and impending anarchy with Night of the Living Dead (1968). But with the high ’70s, the flood broke. Zombies were everywhere. Suddenly, they were overrunning shopping malls, rural farms, homes, city streets. Unintelligible, irreducible, shambling and inelegant, ragged but unstoppable, they were the perfect metaphor for the invasive, alien masses Mr & Mrs Average saw moaning at the gates. In just under a century, those “poor… huddled masses” had gone from being beckoned by the Statue of Liberty to being decapitated by full-blood American heartlanders with shovels.

 

Tombs of the Blind Dead Zombie movie

 

(The zombie movie explosion arrived in perfect sync with its twin, the other great, quintessentially 1970s American cinema phenomenon. Blaxploitation movies attempted to deal with precisely the same anxieties of lone citizens standing alone against a rising tide of violent and degenerate Other, only from the other side. We can read in Shaft‘s urbanity and Superfly‘s threads an analogue to the British Mods’ emphasis on style as an outward expression of ‘clean living under difficult circumstances‘.)

 

No wonder politics got so beleaguered and panicky. No wonder Reagan’s winning 1980 manifesto was called ‘Morning In America’.

 

The mid-1970s was a dream from which it seemed we were trying to awake. A dystopia, narrowly averted. As Ballard wrote High Rise, he channeled this feeling. The block was a metaphor for society, its tribal split by floor – upper, middle and lower – mirroring the strata outside. But others were picking up on the mood too.

 

Think about that mood. Zombies – immigrants, the poor, the Other – were all over popular culture. Terror and immigration were all over the news. Urban high-density development was driving out residents. Atavism as politics, driven by a deep anxiety about the future, and about securing what we have. It was all very 1970s.

 

And in its own way, it’s all very 2010s, too. It’s no surprise that High Rise is being made into a film by Kill List director Ben Wheatley. So what does the rise of that old hysteria, those old anxieties mean? What do The Walking Dead, World War Z, I Am Legend and Zombie Apocalypse say about us? Who are our shambling, malevolent hordes, in ragged clothes, destroying the brains of young people and advancing on our gates?

 

And just as importantly, who are the people promising us easy answers, this time around? Answers that involve barricades, and turning inwards, and everyone for themselves? Or even turning our guns on these “unstoppable cockroaches” and crying “show me the dead bodies”?

 

And if we know that, then might we begin to change what happens next, in our very own luxury fortress-like High Rise?