Friday, March 23, 2007

London letters 1: Doorstep, Forest Hill

This is the first in what improvident ambition says will be a regular Friday photo series: the aim is to seek out interesting bits of lettering on London streets, with a particular relish for stuff that might otherwise be overlooked, and attempt to provide a little historical background.

Our first exhibit is the doorstep of what's now a Red Cross charity shop at 6 London Road in Forest Hill. I've chosen it because it's a splendid bit of Edwardian flim-flam, and because it has a lesson for the many people currently writing about the Death of the English High Street. The tendency when looking at an old photograph, or leafing through an old street directory, is to assume that businesses you haven't heard of are plucky little independents. Not much danger of that with Sainsbury's, which is still the third-largest supermarket group in Britain. According to the firm's fearsomely detailed if excessively twee virtual museum, this branch would have been part of a large-ish London "high-class provisions" chain when it opened; it's not on their list of branches open by 1900, and there were "more than 100" by 1903. Chains and supermarkets may indeed be throttling our high streets; it really would be nice to have a planning system that did more to encourage varied and independent shops; but multiples have existed for a long time, and writing as if they haven't will make you sound like Peter Ackroyd in London: The Biography surveying the modern Fetter Lane:

In the stretch of Fetter Lane which leads directly out of Fleet Street, with, on the respective corners, a bookshop and a computer supplier, is Clifford's Inn, the oldest Inn of Chancery and once the most important edifice in the street. Rebuilt now, and partitioned into offices and apartments, it is situated beside a modern restaurant, the Cafe Rouge, and opposite a new drinking establishment called the Hogshead.

It's a distinctive style, but unless you can match Ackroyd's torrential erudition - he goes on to link this stretch of road to John Wesley, Tom Paine, Keir Hardie, Dryden, Charles Lamb, Samuel Butler, Lemuel Gulliver, Virginia Woolf and "the only cross-eyed statue in London" - probably not one to copy.

(The statue is of John Wilkes, and went up in 1988: here's the PMSA record and photograph.)

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