I was in London this week, primarily to deliver a birthday present to my partner in the form of a visit to the Edward Ardizzone exhibition at the House of Illustration. Ardizzone's distinctive work will be familiar to many older British readers, even if they have forgotten his name, as he was a prolific illustrator of books, particularly children's books, in the second half of the 20th century. His book covers and characteristic line illustrations were part of the flavour of many a post-war childhood.
Assuming, of course, that your childhood was richly-saturated with contemporary children's books, which mine was not. Not through any neglect or deprivation – I'm sure if I had asked to read, say, Stig of the Dump, such books would have found their way into my Christmas stocking – but simply because my parents had no means or reason to know about such books and pass them my way, unasked, and I had no particular inclination to read them. Like so many boys, I preferred my reading matter to be either fact-based (natural history was my thing), heavily-illustrated (comics), or tales of adventure channeled serially through reassuringly familiar figures like Biggles. It would have taken an unusual determination to be different to have joined the girls huddled around the fiction in the primary school library. My favourite books in that library, which I recall reading and rereading many times, were W. Ben Hunt's Indian Crafts and Lore and Simple Heraldry, Cheerfully Illustrated by Iain Moncreiffe and Don Pottinger, both very nicely illustrated.
If I'm honest, I probably thought back then that Ardizzone's pictures were poor, scribbly stuff, though I have to say nowhere near as bad as those of that later go-to kids' book illustrator, Quentin Blake. How he has attained National Treasure status as an illustrator is a mystery to me. However, what I did find interesting at the House of Illustration was Ardizzone's "adult" work, especially his depictions of British low-life in the period between the 1930s and late 1950s. Whether vignettes of punters in pubs, prostitutes, or simple street vistas, he captures something essential of the atmosphere of an older, rackety Britain that was rapidly disappearing in the 1960s and 70s. When I was living in London in the late 1970s, you could still turn a corner and find yourself in an environment that belonged in earlier decades; even, if you ventured into the grimy, industrial backstreets clustered around the docks and central railway stations, in a previous century. If you know the photographs made by Marketa Luskacova in and around Brick Lane, you'll know what I'm talking about. Ardizzone's work is deeply rooted in this world, with its seedy glamour, smoky, coal-fired fug, and secret vices. In the layered shadows of our great cities, bohemia, poverty and criminality made common cause against the respectable world.
But, it seems quite a transformation has been taking place. The House of Illustration is situated north of King's Cross, in a region around the Regent's Canal once notorious for its prostitutes, crime and dereliction. Back in the 1970s the place was so enclosed and overshadowed by crumbling industrial architecture that you could be forgiven for not even knowing the canal was there. A friend used to live in a squat off the Caledonian Road, and I must have walked there from King's Cross a hundred times without ever really noticing the canal as I passed over it. But now... Now the waterway is the centrepiece of some extensive and ongoing urban rejuvenation, which has turned it into a mini-Amsterdam, all houseboats and canal-side apartments and shops and restaurants and galleries, thronging with young tourists and teams of construction workers in hi-vis jackets. Never mind the sturdy 19th century warehouses and rail-sheds, even the gasometers are being transformed into incredibly expensive studio apartments for Chinese and Russian billionaires to buy as investment assets. And where are the previous residents meant to live? You may well ask. London's council tenants are being shipped out of town as far afield as Wales and Manchester.
Royal birds we may be, but this is all we can afford round here...
While I was in the area, I was determined to make a little pilgrimage to what is said to be one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in Europe. If you're on Euston Road, and head north between the British Library and the newly renovated and expanded St. Pancras International station, you will eventually find St. Pancras Old Church sitting on a little hill opposite some blocks of flats (and I mean "flats" rather than "apartments"), surrounded by a large, walled churchyard.The longevity of the site is fascinating, but was not the reason for my pilgrimage. I wanted to see the so-called "Hardy Tree". Read the signs below if you're curious. Now I've seen it, though, I doubt I'll feel the need ever to see it again. I'm not even much of a fan of Thomas Hardy.
Let the pictures do the talking...