Forbidden Planets,Tin Pans and London’s Eternal Trick

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London never stands still. London never stops changing. Everything always begins again there. This is but one of an infinity of reasons why you’re more likely to tire of life than to tire of London. But seeing London change can still hurt.

There must come a point at which everyone who develops a long-term relationship with England’s capital is moved to say “My London is gone.” I’m tempted to say this right now.

I grew up 50 miles outside London, but was a reasonably regular Saturday visitor from a young age (until finally moving there at 25). Somehow, the city has never lost its magic for me. But some of what originally made it so magical for me has undeniably gone.

It was oddly emotional for me to read this week of the redevelopment of Denmark Street. Denmark Street is probably most famous for its musical heritage, reflected in its Tin Pan Alley nickname (half-inched from NY’s original). It’s a very rundown wee connecting street off Charing Cross Road. Over the last five or so decades it’s variously been home to musical instrument shops, tiny nightclubs, bars and recording studios (patronised by the Stones, Sabbath and Bowie, among many others). It’s been a home to the offices of songwriters and a literal home to musicians as diverse as Bananarama and the Sex Pistols.

The forbidden planet
But for me, the real sentimental magic of Denmark Street is its status as the original home of the Forbidden Planet comic shop. Being a smalltown comic geek was quite an isolated pastime in the early 1980s. When I read via an advert in 2000AD that London had a whole entire shop (!) dedicated to comics, I could barely believe it.

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Forbidden Planet was to be found at 23 Denmark Street. When I finally got to visit it at age 10 or 11, I was taken aback that it wasn’t the gleaming white futuristic shop equivalent of a spaceship interior from Kubrick’s 2001 that I’d imagined. Rather, it was a cramped, grubby, narrow wee cubbyhole, stuffed to the gills with comics, comic ephemera and original comic art. Space age or not, I was in heaven.

FP has long since relocated (first to New Oxford Street, then to its current ‘megastore’ on Shaftesbury Avenue). And I’m ashamed to say I’ve not bought a comic in a good few years. But I’ve all the same always viewed Denmark Street and its eternal dowdiness with affection.

Consequently, it’s depressing to read that what I foolishly view as “my” Denmark Street is to be gone for good. “Blade Runner without the flying cars” is how the Guardian summarises the soulless planned Denmark Street 2.0 (well, more likely 28,000.0, knowing how London changes eternally).

The Guardian quotes the developers’ plans for the gleaming new Denmark Street to retain some pale ghost of its cultural history by offering the denizens of 21st Century London and beyond a “street scape” with opportunities to “interact with the brands we love in new and exciting ways.” (I daren’t even follow the link to the video of what this brave new world might look like…but would anybody in their right mind want to interact with a brand? Well, quite.)

The nature of the changes to Denmark Street may not be to my tastes. But it wouldn’t be London if it didn’t change.

Everything has begun again
T’other week, I came across a truly delightful 1991 Clive James documentary – A Postcard from London. The London depicted there is one I remember. But viewing it from a 2015 perspective, London streetlife has unquestionably evolved beyond all recognition. I would have it no other way.

At the end of his 45-minute tour of how 1991’s London had changed since his arrival in the 1960s, Clive James offers a beautiful summation of what London is and why it will always be different, for everyone:

“London is the city of cities. […] Only London collects everything from everywhere. London is the world in one place. And if it seems more serious now than when my lot were starting off, perhaps we’re more serious, and London hasn’t changed at all, but is just working its eternal trick of showing the next generation that the possibilities are infinite, and everything has begun again.”

That said, I can still bemoan the passing of the London I grew up loving. As it’s the passing of a comic-related location I seek to bemoan, perhaps I can paraphrase the Simpsons Comic Book Guy and declare this London’s “Worst. Development. EVER.”?

Now, Londoners and London-loving types: I’d love to know – what was the first part of London you loved? And is it still there now?

PS: Today’s papers bring news that Denmark Street’s recently-closed 12 Bar has been squatted, and its squatterly new denizens are inviting musicians back in. The tale of Denmark Street’s musical legacy may not yet have been completely vanquished by the forces of brand interaction opportunity.

Update (Sunday 25 January 2015): Tin Pan Alley, 1951 vintage!
I am delighted to report that this post seems to have sparked a few other London lovers to share their memories of the parts of the capital that have meant the most to them.

  • Mervyn Dinnen says that London “never fails to make me proud to live here.” His most cherished early London memories originate from just a stone’s throw away from Denmark Street, around the Tottenham Court Road area.
  • Richard Westney is wistful for the days when Fleet Street was the centre of the UK’s national newspaper industry. Both he and you (if you also harbour a fondness for Fleet Street’s inkier past) would be very well advised to watch the Clive James video embedded earlier in this post. In it, Mr James visits some then-recently vacated Fleet Street newspaper offices. The sheer scale of the printing presses! Richard also holds a place in his heart for Waterloo Bridge.
  • Anne Tynan, meanwhile, has excelled herself by sharing a link to a British Pathé video of Tin Pan Alley as it was in 1951. Magical.
  • Both Kevin Ball and Megan Peppin have posted wonderful little comments, each of which you can see by scrolling down on this page.

And finally (for this update, at least), here are two lovely responses via Tim Scott and Amanda Sterling. I think Amanda’s words in particular sum up all that needs to be said for now…

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