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Charles Fort

Charles Fort


Words David Sutton

Illustrations Ross Becker


“…he was determined to unlock whatever weird secrets the British Museum hid behind its imposing neo-classical façade.”

As editor of Fortean Times magazine there are two questions I tend to get asked. The first, unsurprisingly, is: why is it called the ‘Fortean’ Times? I explain that the magazine is named after the American writer Charles Fort. The second question: Who was Charles Fort? Despite being something of a cult figure, Fort remains little known to the wider public, even though he coined the word ‘teleportation’, imagined alien invasions long before the dawn of the UFO age and inspired hit TV shows like The X-Files. Flying saucers and ancient astronauts; mysterious animals and troublesome poltergeists; psychic powers and strange disappearances; rains of blood and spontaneous human combustion; pick these or any other sufficiently weird subjects and the chances are that Charles Fort wrote about them nearly a century ago. Those famous falling frogs in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia? A homage to Fort, of course.

So, who was Charles Hoy Fort? And what connects this visionary American writer to Bloomsbury? Fort was born in Albany, upstate New York, in 1874. Rebelling against his domineering businessman father, the young Charles became a writer, starting out as a reporter on the Albany Argus and the Brooklyn World. Having married and moved to New York City, he tried his hand at novels and short stories, holding down jobs as a joke writer or a dish washer to pay the rent. Many of the results are lost to history – burned manuscripts, abandoned novels – but, in the end, he found his own unique voice in four books, published between 1919 and his death in 1932, that pretty much set the template for the study of ‘strange phenomena’. The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo! and Wild Talents were dense, difficult and funny by turns, full of bizarre facts, mind-blowing philosophical speculations and humorous assaults on stuffy scientific orthodoxy. They were like nothing before or since, although every subsequent work on the paranormal owes a huge debt to Fort’s pioneering efforts.

He’d started off reading old newspapers in public libraries, in search of ideas for stories, but found something far more interesting: real-life events so unusual they made fiction seem redundant and suggested our world was far stranger than anything dreamt of by novelists. He became fascinated by what he called “damned data”: the unexplained and often inconvenient facts that the high priests of mainstream science – who preferred to chop reality into reassuring artificial categories – sought to exclude or ignore. He pored over collections of scientific journals in reading rooms and libraries, marshalling his army of anomalies, recording thousands of notes on cards stuffed in shoeboxes. Once in a while, he’d destroy them and start, obsessively, all over again.

It was this search for “damned data” that brought Fort and his wife Anna to Bloomsbury. He had already ransacked the New York Public Library; now he was determined to unlock whatever weird secrets the British Museum hid behind its imposing neo-classical façade. Arriving in early December 1920, the Forts took a small furnished flat at 15 Marchmont Street for six months so that Fort could conduct his researches. It was to prove nowhere near long enough, so they returned to Bloomsbury in the December of 1921, this time taking a longer lease on a flat above a greengrocer’s at 39A Marchmont Street. Here, they quickly settled into a pleasant routine. Charles would rise at eight each day, “knock around the rooms” and work on his notes all morning; after Anna had prepared a midday meal, he’d go out at two, walking the short distance to the British Museum. Here, in the great domed reading room, he would continue his “grand tour” of old newspapers, astronomical journals and scientific periodicals. He’d return home around five, and after a modest supper he and Anna would either go to the cinema to enjoy the silent features and newsreels or for an evening stroll in Hyde Park. Fort enjoyed listening to the men who held forth at Speaker’s Corner, usually finding a group to argue with about the future prospects of space travel or other unlikely topics. Anna later recalled that her husband would often stop in their evening walks and stare up at the night sky, pointing out the planets and constellations above their heads. Once back at the Marchmont Street flat, “he would throw open the windows and stand gazing at the stars. That was his delight for a long, long time”.

As Fort’s daily researches in the British Museum continued to yield more anomalous data and throw up new avenues of explanation, his notes grew apace, the shoeboxes overflowing with gathered weirdness. Unsuspected correlations between phenomena revealed themselves. Some of them were close to home: “There is a triangular region in England, three points of which appear so often in our data that the region should be specially known to us, and I know it myself as the London Triangle…” Sometimes, oddities would crowd even closer, as when, between 1924 and 1925, the Forts were subjected to a spate of apparent poltergeist activity in their flat – pictures would fall from walls with loud bangs but no obvious explanations. Charles suspected that he and Anna were somehow unconsciously causing the phenomena themselves.

In the end, their London sojourn lasted far longer than the couple had ever envisaged: it wasn’t until early 1928 that they finally boarded a transatlantic steamer bound for New York and home. By then, Fort’s eyesight was failing – worn out by years of squinting at yellowing papers – and his health in decline. He died on 3 May 1932 at the Royal Hospital in the Bronx, aged 57.

Fort’s London adventure had yielded much in the way of material for his books, but the years he spent here left no discernible mark on London. He was a shy man, neither overly find of company nor remotely fashionable or well connected. It’s strange to think of him carrying on his obsessive quest and dining on beer and strong cheese through the 1920s, while just around the corner the self-styled and rather better-fed Bohemians of the Bloomsbury set held court. There’s no record that either was aware of the other, but it’s hard to imagine Fort finding much of interest in Mrs Dalloway; and Virginia Woolf or Lytton Strachey would have thought The Book of the Damned the ravings of a madman.

Belated recognition of Fort’s time in Bloomsbury came eventually. In 1997, Fortean Times founder Bob Rickard got an unofficial plaque put up at 39 Marchmont Street. Now, a more permanent blue plaque commemorates Fort’s years at the address. Commissioned by the Marchmont Association, it was largely financed by Brij Parmar, the owner of Bloomsbury Building Supplies, the business that now occupies No 39. and unveiled on 28 March 2015 by the Mayor of Camden and FT’s co-founding editor, Paul Sieveking.

The plaque calls Fort the “founder of Forteanism”, which he would have hated, being mistrustful of all ideologies and -isms; when a Fortean Society was founded in New York the year before his death, Fort refused to join it. Nonetheless, it was a sign that his influence would be a lasting one, and Society members included Theodore Dreiser, Ben Hecht, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Buckminster Fuller. Rechristened the International Fortean Society, it continues to this day. Meanwhile, here in the UK Fortean Times has been publishing continuously for nearly half a century. We continue to pursue Fort’s search for anomalies and can count among our subscribers over the years writers like Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Jack Womack and Phil Rickman; film-makers such as Guillermo del Toro and Paul Giamatti; and musicians including Jerry Garcia, Rat Scabies and Kate Bush. So, next time you’re walking down Marchmont Street, look up when you pass No. 39 and remember the weird and wonderful legacy of Charles Fort: you’ll be among very good company.

Giovanni Spezziga

Giovanni Spezziga


Words & Portraits Kirk Truman


“…you know, I guess you could say it’s a grand café, and I’m the gatekeeper.”

Just off Bedford Square, right in the heart of Bloomsbury, is a bar like no other, and today I’m getting the grand tour from its general manager, Giovanni Spezziga. We’re at The Bloomsbury’s Coral Room, where Gio, as he’s known, is looking as sharp as ever in a double-breasted velvet jacket as he takes me from room to room and floor to floor, greeting and charming guests and staff alike. Gio is well known in the industry as an established host and manager, and since late last year The Coral Room has been his stomping ground.

I recall my first visit here when, oddly perhaps, I was reminded of the bar which features in the Stanley Kubrick film of Stephen King’s The Shining. I assure you, it was meant as a compliment! You may remember the scene where Jack Nicholson sits and has a drink at the Overlook Hotel’s grand bar. The key difference is that The Coral Room, while equally grand, couldn’t be less sinister. In fact, the environment is both relaxed and glamorous. The vibrant coral walls are decorated with the works of acclaimed artist Edward Luke, while from the double-height ceilings are suspended five bespoke Murano glass chandeliers. The luxurious interior, designed by the acclaimed Martin Brudnizki, is redolent of the Bloomsbury of the 1920s, or of an exquisite country house transported to the heart of Central London. It’s candy for your eyes, and the food and drink offerings a true delight for your taste buds.

Gio was the perfect choice to helm this new venture. He has well established roots in hospitality, having spent seven years of his career in London, prior to which he had gained valuable experience back home in Italy. “I guess I’ve moved around since being in London. From the W Hotel in Leicester Square, to the Rosewood over in Holborn, I’m lucky enough to have worked in some of the best venues in the city,” he says. “After working with the Rosewood, an opportunity arose which interested me, and I think I knew from the off that I wanted to be involved. I couldn’t ignore the idea of the The Coral Room. Restaurants and bars have always been like bread and butter to me, you know? This felt like the beginning of a place which I wanted to be associated with.”

Gio was first introduced to The Bloomsbury last year when he was invited to meet with members of the team about the upcoming project. “The vision was clear. I was very happy to be given the opportunity to helm The Coral Room – and just to be invited in! The dream was always to be able to open a place afresh – it’s exciting to be part of a new opening, and to watch something unfold in front of you like that,” he says. Once on board, Gio worked closely with the team at the hotel and the interior designers in order to help perfect the vision that would become The Coral Room. From the trademark coral walls to the elegant fused marble bars and other immaculate details, Gio has been at the centre of the project, ensuring that functionality and good looks went hand in hand.

It’s an attention to detail that has paid off. The bar inhabits what was once a handsome but underused reception area. With its incredibly high ceilings and wooden panelling – now updated in striking coral – it was fitting that this huge Edwardian space should be brought back to life as a grand salon bar for the 21st century. The dining options, I’m pleased to say, are as desirable as the location itself, with a fantastic brunch menu, a selection of fine English sparkling wines and an inimitable cocktail list for the evening – I’d especially recommend the Barber & Barrel whiskey sour, a personal favourite.

Gio and I are passing back into The Coral Room via the terrace when he observes: “You know, I guess you could say it’s a grand café, and I’m the gatekeeper. We’re open from 8 o’clock every morning until late. The food and drink offerings are amazing, and the location ties it all together. It’s a meeting spot for Bloomsbury.” Gio goes on to explain how The Coral Room is used as an office away from work, or perhaps a living room away from home, by many people within the creative industries, agencies and companies in the surrounding area. As he greets guests around the room, it seems that he has got to know quite a few of them already.

Visit The Coral Room at The Bloomsbury, 16-22 Great Russell Street or alternatively visit their website to read more or to enquire about bookings

Redemption Roasters

Redemption Roasters


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“Despite us only working with a relatively small group of individuals, we’re having a much wider impact overall…”

Everything is (almost) like most noteworthy cafes I know. There is coffee in a great location and an array of great people flurrying in and out of the doors. We’re on Lambs Conduit Street, which is arguably one of the greatest streets in London. However, the backstory and spirit of this newcomer to Lambs Conduit Street is distinctively different to other roasters in London. Head of Coffee & Operations, Harry Graham, is telling me about the backbone of this unique new opening; great coffee meets 17-21 year old young male prison inmates. I know what you’re thinking; maybe the two sound like they shouldn’t be in the same sentence?

Nestled amongst the diverse businesses on Lambs Conduit Street, Redemption Roasters looks like any other successful London café: a great location on one of the city’s premier streets, a steady stream of customers enjoying top-quality coffees and an inviting array of snacks and pastries. But there’s a twist in the story of this particular coffee shop – one that really does mark it out as quite unique. After all, you don’t normally expect to find the terms ‘great coffee’ and ‘young offenders’ in the same sentence, but that’s the surprising backstory behind Redemption Roasters – perhaps I’d better start at the beginning…

Harry Graham is Redemption’s Head of Coffee, and he’s telling me how it is that the company came to offer a fresh start to young male prison inmates aged between 17 and 21. He gives me a bit of insight into the plight of young offenders like this: 50% of them are highly likely to reoffend after being released without skills or a job to go to. They return to the only thing they know: a life of crime. With this in mind, Redemption Roasters were approached by the Ministry of Justice to help address the problem of reoffending. The result was that they started operating a roastery and barista training centre within Aylesbury Prison, as well as a café for the prison community and visitors. The young inmates not only pick up useful skills but learn the importance and value of a job and a routine. The end result – to go back to that surprising sentence – is the creation of great coffee made by young offenders.

The process means that inmates are able to apply for roles at Redemption Roasters within the prison walls of Aylesbury, join their training program and earn a wage. This is the beginning of teaching inmates how to create coffee, work as baristas and, more importantly, offer them real jobs when released.

“It’s a way to take these guys out of the habit of reoffending and show them respect for something. Despite us only working with a relatively small group of individuals, we’re having much wider impact overall in stopping these individuals from reoffending,” says Harry. “So far, we’ve had a 100% success rate with the inmates we’ve worked with. Most roles offered within prisons are more like chores than actual work – things like sorting rubbish and doing laundry. What we’ve been able to offer is far more substantial.”

After the success of the roastery and the wholesaling side of the business, planning started on launching the first Redemption Roasters café in the heart of Bloomsbury. “It became obvious that there was a missing link in our business structure,” says Harry. “There we were, training these individuals and giving them all of this knowledge, but potentially leaving them with no way of putting it to good use. We felt that it would be a natural progression for the business to launch our own café. That way, we could be there when inmates were released and be able to offer them a job as a barista outside of the prison. It was a conscious decision, and the perfect way to offer roles to members of our training program. The case with many young offenders who leave prison and go into an employment situation is that they lose the job after a number of months. Employers aren’t typically familiar with prison culture. There are little routines and procedures within prison walls that don’t apply to day-to-day reality outside, and this can lead to employees losing their jobs. The difference with us is that we already understand prison culture, so we know how to work around issues such as these.”

The search for Redemption’s first café was on, although Harry stresses that they weren’t in a rush: it was all about finding the right place at the right time. “For us, Lambs Conduit Street had a strong identity behind it. It’s one of those London streets which is unforgettable – it’s proper London. We wanted it to be taken seriously, to fit comfortably with the other unique tenants on the street, but also to stand out from the crowd and have its own distinct personality.”

The café launched last July, and all the indications are that it’s been well received by local residents and neighbourhood businesses alike. Perhaps that’s because people can understand the social impact of the idea and see that it makes Redemption Roasters a special place – after all, getting these young men out of reoffending benefits not just them but wider communities. This isn’t your ordinary café; I guess you could call it a landmark. And the idea of giving young offenders a second chance via caffeine? Somehow, there’s an element of genius to the idea.

Visit Redemption Roasters at 84 Lamb’s Conduit Street or visit their website

Cathy Ward

Cathy Ward


Words Cathi Undsworth

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“The Internet has revealed much that was hidden. It is its own dark mirror by its very nature of conjuring up secrets and knowledge. But not everything can be googled. There has to be mystery out there somewhere…”

“It was random, if not magical circumstances, that brought me here,” says artist Cathy Ward of Bloomsbury. “Family from many generations gravitated here, all within streets of each other, none born Londoners. My mother trained as a nurse at UCH in WWII and I’d grown up hearing how a bomb shattered her bedroom, killing her roommate. Her mother was a talented painter and attended The Slade, across the road, at the start of the century – quite something for a woman then. The Suffragette movement undoubtedly played a part in her ambitions.” Cathy’s works – which range from immense canvases of mesmeric monochrome megaworlds to tiny, ink-on-mother-of-pearl sculptures that seem to have the sea and sky captured within them – are so intricate in detail that they transport the viewer into a different realm. Something that echoes the fin de siècle ideas of The Yellow Book and the occultist Austin Osman Spare: the Bloomsbury of her grandmother’s age.

“I feel I’m a direct descendant from her struggles, she was my one beacon of hope as, growing up in the 1960s, a career as an artist wasn’t encouraged,” she says. “Her ambitions were in conflict with the man she married and she died at 40 after bearing nine children. Such was the fate of many women. I live among reminders of that: The Women’s Freedom League in Bury Place and Hawksmoor’s St George’s, the only church that would take the body of Emily Davidson after her death under the King’s horse.” Cathy herself arrived early in the 1980s: “I hung out in a Bohemian scene. I went to raves at the YMCA and squat parties in Great Russell Street opposite the British Museum. Marchmont Street had forgotten, dusty charms with a stock of eccentrics. I’ve been lucky to have known many artists, including the great sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. He gifted me pieces of his work in the late 1980s related to his vast iconic commission for Tottenham Court Road station. I’d never imagined decades later this would be my home stop. Every time I use that station I think of him and that association. It is magical. I’m still sad his entrance arches were omitted in the redesign, as everything he did was so interconnected. There was always something memorable about coming through them on the journey down to the underground.”

London is changing so rapidly; has the area been irredeemably damaged? “The city’s reconstruction has seemed almost as destructive as the Blitz this past decade,” Cathy considers. “It’s been a task for residents checking the planning notices. Over the past decade our small team, headed by Helen McMurray (South Bloomsbury Association) and Jim Murray (Bloomsbury Association), have helped preserve buildings. We’ve had jubilant wins and crushing losses. South Bloomsbury faces the most relentless building programme and we can’t predict the full effect of Crossrail.”

What are the things that keep you going? “Walking to The Wellcome via the green corridor of squares. Independent bookshops like Atlantis on Museum Street, Treadwell’s on Store Street and Maggs Rare Books’, now relocated to Bedford Square. On Great Russell Street, the most romantic art store, L Cornellissen & Son, which is delightful to just wander into and gaze at all the glass bottles of pigments.”

Which brings us back to Cathy’s work. The one thread that links it all seems to be the search for the magical. The first exhibition I saw by her, in collaboration with American artist Eric Wright, was at the Horse Hospital in 2000, the fairytale forest of Transromantik. “I went to the first exhibition at the Horse Hospital,” Cathy recalls, “Vive le Punk, with the clothing of Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren. At the Horse, they set their own rules, screened cult films and grew an audience of writers, photographers, musicians and art oddballs which I am lucky to count as friends. When they wanted us to do an exhibition it was a real affirmation. Transromantik took two years to make and was one of the best experiences. Sacred Pastures with myself, Eric and Norbert Kox, was a great success. Later this year I will be presenting a solo exhibition. It’s a great honour.”

History plays a big part in Cathy’s output. Her TRYST exhibition featured Home Rites, a piece incorporating her corn dolly sculptures, alongside works by medium Madge Gill, whose automatic drawings were made to communicate with her son and daughter, tragically lost in the flu epidemic of 1918. “She is one of our most prolific women artists, though still relatively unknown. I have a definite interest in history of the intuitive, visionary and marginalised because is not part of academic or theory-based practice. The occult is similar, it plays on emotions and is associated with women, so it is feminist in its own way. I try and incorporate mystery into my work and make things that can function like talismans. If your work has meaning that is not the art world kind of meaning, then it can either be ignored or explained away with theory. But here has to be mystery out there somewhere…”

I love the fact that you like to bring in the work of other women whose contributions may have been forgotten, is that important to you?

“Yes, it is. It feels like we’ve come full circle in our conversation. So many women in past decades who were not given the chance, were disregarded or plagiarised. It still happens, but visibility is improving. If I’m given the opportunity to introduce more talented women, I will. One of the things I have learnt is patience, and that is a virtue.”

To read more about Cathy, go to her website 

Made of Stone

Made of Stone


Words Kirk Truman

Illustrations Alice Chiariello


If you recall one of our earlier issues this year, you’ll remember illustrator and artist Alice Chiariello’s Walking feature back in May. Originally from the South of France, Alice is now based in Bloomsbury and uses her talents to capture the character and spirit of the neighbourhood’s architecture. For this issue, Alice has chosen to focus on the area’s less travelled corners, the secret places most people may be unaware of.

Susan Collins

Susan Collins


Words Matthew Ross

Photography  Kirk Truman


“I always tell other people that having the opportunity to make the work you want to make has to be success.”

 

From a Jerusalem rooftop, a camera looks across the West Bank towards the Jordanian mountains. It records time. Far away, the peak of Mount Nebo, where Moses stood to view the Promised Land. Closer, the Mount of Olives, the West Bank, the impassive trees of Israeli Jerusalem. Pixel by pixel, over 12 hours, the camera lays down the timeless landscape. Centuries of history in a single frame. Behind the camera is Susan Collins, British artist and Director of the Slade School of Art. In her echoing office, hidden beyond the neo-Grecian half-rotunda that ceremoniously fronts the Slade, she tells me the about the latest in a series of commissions that, over 15 years, have become an enduring illustration of her art.

The pieces place network cameras in remote locations, where they construct images one pixel at a time, from left to right, top to bottom, and then write them over again. The images might be seascapes, made in the time it takes for the tide to go in and out. Or they might be landscapes, recorded in just under a day. The Jerusalem camera sits atop Mount Scopus and, in a nod to Halachic time, which divides the hours of daylight into 12 equal periods, creates its landscape over 12 hours. The works are slow reflections; palliatives to the snowballing speeds of digital existence, the tones of their horizontal bands gradually encoding slow changes in light and movement through the day. “I choose my time frames according to the subject. The images that emerge – the image that’s emerging from Jerusalem – are timeless. They unify landscape in a single frame, which for me is a quiet response to a very particular situation.”

A gallerist looking for an easy label might describe Susan’s practice as ‘new media’. Susan would demur. “I work with media, but my materials are time, the network and transmission, and my subjects are landscape, seascape and the natural environment. It’s not about technology at all; it’s about looking over time, which is actually very old fashioned.” When Susan returned to the Slade in 1995 to create the School’s first programme in electronic media, eight years a Slade alumna herself, she had a vision that would, she hoped, quicken the interface of art and technology. The Slade she knew as a student in the 1980s defined its categories crisply. “The ethos was: ‘Well, are you a painter or are you a sculptor? What are you?’ I was neither; I was a very awkward student. Later, within a mainstream art setting, artists working with technology were either celebrated too much or denigrated. My whole idea when I came back to the Slade was that artists working with technology would be judged alongside others on equal terms.”

Susan resists the notion that her practice and leadership have already left their enduring mark on the Slade. The observer might disagree. Her forebears as Slade Director constitute a heavy mantle of eminent, male, establishment pedagogues: Alphonse Legros, Henry Tonks, William Coldstream. As a student, Susan likely passed Coldstream himself on the Slade’s sweeping stairway, and she feels his influence on British art education keenly. But she wears the mantle lightly and refuses to take sole credit for the integration of art and technology she has overseen: a wider cultural transformation, she claims, was at work. Similarly, not once does she mention that she is the first woman to be Director of the Slade and the Slade Professor of Art at UCL. Some truths speak for themselves.

Fostered as an art student by the Slade, allowed to burn the midnight oil night after night in UCL’s computer science basement, Susan came of age stateside. On exchange in New York in 1986, she met her first Macintosh Plus. She began drawing with early Mac Paint and discovered the redemptive power of memory. “As an artist, learning to draw and paint, you have to push it to learn anything. You have to take a drawing as far as you can, and there comes a point when you’ve pushed too far and the work is destroyed. The beauty to me, who wants to have my cake and eat it, from that very early encounter with computing, is that you can do a drawing, save it, take it in different directions, destroy it, but still have it.”

Throughout her career, Susan has valued interfacing with the real world above commercial audiences and markets. Her early experiments with computer drawing soon evolved into animated sequences but, faced with the echo chamber of animation industry audiences, she began experimenting with interventions in public spaces. And there her focus has remained. “I want to make work that interrupts people’s everyday; not something that people choose to look at as a spectacle, but something that might be a surprise or an intimate moment; something that you could stumble across and feel like it was talking only to you.”

Has such ambivalence about the commercial art world been a hindrance? “I always tell other people that having the opportunity to make the work you want to make has to be termed success.” The artist who has been picked up by a commercial gallery often has to vault the huge gulf between working on their own terms, alone and small-scale, and running a studio the size of an aircraft hangar with a team hanging on their next flash of brilliance. “To develop work, you need to be private at times, to fail and actually make mistakes, and not have to articulate everything immediately to someone else.”

Are there really no great frustrations or regrets in her heart? “I would have loved to be a singer. There’s something so uplifting and energizing about it. It’s just you and your voice and that’s all it takes. Still now, there are times when I wish I could just do it, only everyone else would run screaming. I mouth ‘Happy Birthday’ because I don’t want to ruin people’s birthdays!” The response, I come to understand, is pure Susan Collins. Coursing with energy, she tempers her distinction with a keen sense of the ridiculous and a deep-rooted belief that her art is for people, not rarefied white cubes. The previous night, an email from a colleague had dropped into Susan’s inbox. “She said simply, in an aside, that she still finds my Jerusalem images so haunting and so very moving. Your colleagues are your best, your worst and your scariest critics. And from someone I’ve worked alongside for years, who didn’t have to say that, it means a lot.”

Cockpit Arts

Cockpit Arts


Words & Illustrations Sophie Pelissier


“When you study your art or your craft you aren’t taught how to run a business…”

There is an air of quiet industriousness down the wooden hallways of Cockpit Arts. You could be forgiven for thinking the ghosts of the original 1920s furniture workshop were still working behind the studio doors were it not for glimpses of colourful textiles, bold typography, or polished ceramics. True to its legacy of craft manufacturing, this discreet white-brick warehouse in Holborn is home to 90 ‘makers’ of various craft professions: tailors, jewellers, potters and more. With the squeeze on central London studio spaces, the resident designer-makers have been handed a golden ticket by Cockpit Arts, an award-winning social enterprise and the UK’s only creative business incubator.

“What I’ve noticed is that people find their way here at different stages or with different intentions for their products, and this place allows you to get it together.” Ian Scott-Kettle, 49, sits on his work table with his hands in his lap, contemplating the role of Cockpit Arts in his varied trajectory through the fashion world. He was granted a studio space at Holborn five years ago in partnership with a textile artist, but they found that their initial product idea was floundering. “Cockpit very graciously gave us the space to try and figure it out. So, we both re-grouped and we’re both still here but doing very different businesses. Still very good friends.” And after three years on his own it would appear that Ian has indeed figured it out, having developed a scale-able business making and marketing bespoke men’s accessories made using traditional pattern cutting techniques. Now he sees a steadily growing stream of clients making their way to his studio. So how exactly does Cockpit Arts work to help designer-makers launch their businesses so successfully?

There have been ‘starter’ craft studios on the premises of Cockpit Yard since 1986, but it wasn’t until 1993 that Cockpit Arts was formally created as a social enterprise. It offers talented makers the means of growing their businesses, providing them with an affordable studio space at one of two sites in either Holborn or Deptford. Cockpit’s current CEO Vanessa Swann explains how having a hub of creatives under one roof delivers the first “informal layer” of support, “a cross-fertilization of skills and contacts”, which is then combined with a “formal layer” of business development advice. This is tailored to makers’ needs, no matter what stage they are at in their careers, and delivered via one-on-one mentoring from a small, full-time business incubation team. The Cockpit package provides further support from Associates, a network of external professionals in sales and marketing, accounting and intellectual property. Getting help with their business strategy is all the more invaluable since, as leatherworker Candice Lau says, “When you study your art or your craft you aren’t taught how to run a business”. It’s a sentiment I hear echoed in the experience of other makers I meet. Candice arrived at Cockpit in 2015 having won the Leatherseller’s award, one of many such schemes that sponsor studio spaces for around 20 applicants each year, providing them with access to equipment and industry contacts. “I wouldn’t be where I am without Cockpit. It’s helped me to become very professional, and there are other people around me who are designing and making products. We feed off each other so much creatively.”

This community spirit at Cockpit is enabled in an important way through shared studios, and not necessarily between makers who are cut from the same cloth, so to speak. Onome Otite came to Cockpit in 2016 through the Creative Careers Programme, which works in partnership with The Prince’s Trust to help young people between 18–30 establish a career in craft. Her figurative illustrations using textiles and printed materials started life in her living room, and she admits that pre-Cockpit she would never have considered a shared studio. “But actually… you get so much more out of it. You see more, you share more ideas… You learn a lot, whether that’s a new technical skill or about a show, stockist or supplier.” The transferral of knowledge has come full circle now in the large, airy studio she shares with three other jewellers and milliners from the new 2017 Creative Careers intake; after her first year at Cockpit she can now pass on her own experiences and advice about business strategy.

Shared studio spaces are one of many ways in which Cockpit fosters an open dialogue about running a craft business. Makers are encouraged to be vocal and engage with each other through the social enterprise structure and using digital tools like Google Groups, which functions as a Cockpit instant messenger for makers to find out about shows and possible commissions, or even just to ask for a lift to a specific event. It all goes towards building a mind-set that encourages them to seek out opportunities for themselves. “You get into the habit of talking,” Onome tells me. “I’m constantly talking about myself and my work as everything is so shared, so you’re forced to. I’m not somebody that was comfortable with sharing my own personal experience… but luckily this is a safe environment.”

Building a business from your passion isn’t easy; but neither is building a business and sustaining it. That is why Vanessa Swann is so keen to insist that Cockpit Arts is also about “acceleration… in case there’s any misunderstanding about incubation and it being solely for makers just starting out. We’ve always been about supporting makers at different stages and ages.” Theo Wang, for instance, has been at Cockpit for nine years but had to re-launch his letterpress business in 2017 in order to adapt to his business partner leaving London. “Being a maker and running your own business is all about evolving and developing, whether it’s your skills, your markets, the way you promote yourself. You need different kinds of support and advice at every stage.”

But every small business needs customers and local supporters, thousands of whom are welcomed to Cockpit Arts during the twice yearly Open Studios. Makers decorate their workspaces to introduce their products to customers and buyers, while the public have the opportunity to dodge the high-street and buy unique, tailor-made creations with their own narrative attached. One of many long-standing local residents and supporters is Anne Beresford, who has spent the last 20 years buying homewares, jewellery and clothes for herself and as gifts at Open Studios. “I was fortunate enough to win the raffle one year, so I put that towards a one-off sample jacket that I’d been coveting. I love the fact that things are made close by, and that I know at least some of the people involved in the making.” In the face of diminishing local businesses in Holborn and Bloomsbury, there is a sense of pride amongst residents to have witnessed and supported Cockpit’s development. Josie Firmin, owner of a china painting business nearby, has employed many freelance artists working at Cockpit Arts over the years. Jane King is another resident in John’s Mews and reiterates how much inner-city areas need cultural centres and independent businesses “in order to be a balanced community – I do not want to see my neighbourhood become just an investment and a dormitory for the very rich.”

 

Every maker, employee and resident I speak to comes back to the importance of community – one that encompasses the internal structure, the Associates, Trustees, Sponsors, then of course the enthusiastic buyers of beautifully designed, handmade products at Open Studios. “You get the feeling that everyone is on your side”, is the way Ian Scott-Kettle puts it.

It is a structure that exists not just to help makers create a viable business but also to realise their dreams, as Vanessa passionately affirms: “There is nothing more satisfying than thinking ‘could we help this person realise what it is that deep down they want to do, and have the capability to do, even though it appears to them to be very difficult’.” Under the guardianship of Vanessa and her team and with the support of their fellow makers, the future is bright for anyone honing their craft at Cockpit Arts.

Roger K. Burton

Roger K. Burton


Words Cathi Unsworth

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“I never had the opportunity to go to university or the desire to… I became a jack-of-all-trades and wheeler-dealer.”

When Roger K. Burton first stepped inside The Horse Hospital on the Colonnade, it was not a pretty sight. “The building had been unused for about 10 years when my friend Guy Adams found it on a recce to Bloomsbury in 1993. When we first got in the door there were pigeons flying about, rats and mice everywhere and ivy growing through the collapsed roof; not to mention a thick layer of printing ink completely covering up the fabulous floor.”

By that time, Roger had made his name styling iconic music videos, and supplying original period clothes for films such as Quadrophenia, The Rutles, The Wall, Dance with A Stranger and Sid & Nancy. He had an unerring eye for detail – and the Contemporary Wardrobe, the largest youth fashion collection in the world, which had taken him an eventful lifetime to amass. Although it would take six months to get the place shipshape, he had finally found both the perfect home for his Wardrobe and the Capital’s last truly independent arts space.

Today, fashion students are flocking to The Horse to see the exhibition Rebel Threads that complements Roger’s luxurious new book, a catalogue of the collection and insider’s view of the styles that adorned successive generations of tearaways, from Spivs, Teds and Mods to Skinheads and Punks. But Roger was never a student. Everything he learned began in the Mod clubs of 1960s Leicester.

“I never had the opportunity to go to university or the desire to. Hating authority, I just wanted to leave school as quickly as possible,” he says. “I became a jack-of-all-trades and wheeler-dealer.”

Those trades included restoring antiques, which led Roger through the flea markets and junk shops of the Midlands in the 1970s, to the opening of his first shop, Pioneer Antiques in Leicester, later Hollywood Fashions. Now making a living from vintage clothing, Roger’s path crossed with two up-and-coming designers, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. By 1976, there was a buzz in the air, which the couple had anticipated. Punk damaged Roger’s business – but he loved it.

“In 1977, Rick Carter, Steph Raynor, Helen Robinson and I opened a shop called PX selling military clothing. We were offered this old fruit-and-veg warehouse on James Street by Andrew Czezowski, of Roxy club fame. I had a clear idea of what I wanted it to look like, and just happened to be passing a closed-down building in Mayfair when they were clearing it out. We paid £20 for all this industrial ducting and metal cages, which fit perfectly with the low-tech boiler room/submarine vibe I was after – all courtesy of MI5.” After that, he took a stall on Portobello Road, where destiny came calling, in the form of the art director for Quadrophenia.

“It was great to be able to supply most of the clothes for the film and use my first-hand knowledge of original Mod style,” Roger reflects. “But thanks to Punk and the New Romantics, period authenticity as a fashion was disappearing and led me to another way of thinking about restyling period clothes.” One way in which Roger developed this was with McLaren and Westwood in the redesign of their shops, World’s End in 1980 and Nostalgia of Mud in 1981, the latter being described by Peter York as the most innovative of the decade.

“Malcolm and Vivienne were going through one of their most creative periods, so it was very exciting to be able to spend time with them. Everything was drawn upon, from my favourite Midlands pub, the Crooked House in Himley, to pirate ships, Alice in Wonderland, Hogarth prints and the Sony Walkman.”

It was also the dawn of the pop video age and Roger styled both The Specials’ Terry Hall (in ‘Ghost Town’) and The Kinks’ Ray Davies (‘Come Dancing’) in the same 1940s pinstriped suit. “It’s funny, looking back. Both Terry and Ray were true professionals and generally bands were respectful, but of course, some tried it on. Debbie Harry didn’t want to give back a leopard print dress, until I put a huge price tag on it; likewise, Keith Richards tried to hang on to a beautiful old biker jacket. But George Harrison was a proper gentleman. He loved a Victorian frock coat I styled on him in a Traveling Wilburys video so much that he had me copy it exactly so he could wear it all the time.”

Since discovering the Horse, Roger has been a host and inspiration to two decades’ worth of fashionistas, film freaks, writers, artists, musicians and bohemian types. But life has not always been easy. “The owners have been trying to prise us out of the building for 15 years. First, they wanted to redevelop it, but we managed to get it Grade II listed. Then they tried to make me forfeit the lease. We got it listed as a Community Asset and, as the owners didn’t want to take on Camden Council, they have left us alone for over a year now. So, I’m optimistic about the future, particularly as 2018 marks a double anniversary, 25 years at the Horse Hospital, and 40 years of Contemporary Wardrobe.” The publication of Rebel Threads is a landmark for fans of real style – but does Roger see any new youth cultures on the horizon, or are we doomed to endlessly recycle ourselves now? “I wish I did, but you never know, in these less-than-certain times,” he considers. “One lives in hope!”

Citizens

Citizens


Words & Photography Etienne Gilfillan


Russell Square is Bloomsbury’s watering hole, where all creatures great and small converge. Some live locally, others just come to peer at the neighbours and sniff out the competition. From a Greek-food loving pooch to a paper-shredding parrot, this autumn Journal comes face to face with Bloomsbury’s cosmopolitan creatures.

David Moore

David Moore


Words & Photography Etienne Gilfillan


David Moore is a man unafraid of a floral pattern and a huge fan of the Human League – two facts I discovered almost simultaneously as he greeted me, decked out in a fedora and colourful shirt, at his Fitzrovia restaurant Pied à Terre. I found him thumbing through a selection of vinyl albums, one of which was the relatively obscure early Human League offering Travelogue. It’s always nice to find you share a common interest.

Pied à Terre opened in 1991 and showcases David and head chef Andy McFadden’s impressive gourmet dining credentials – credentials that have attracted a number of big names over the years, from the Monty Python gang to Annie Lennox and John Hurt… though sadly not Phil Oakey thus far. “John Hurt was very entertaining character. He came in for dinner once and ordered a really expensive bottle of red wine, which he’d never done before. I was quite surprised. It was £265, and he got two or three of them! The bill came and he paid it, no problem. The next time he came back, I asked him about it. ‘I didn’t have my reading glasses,’ he said. ‘I thought it was £26.50!’ So, I said, ‘Dinner’s on me tonight’ and he was thrilled.”

Sitting down to eat, I soon find out what attracts such an illustrious crowd. Mackerel with fennel, mustard and frozen parmesan; John Dory with grapefruit, miso, quinoa and brassicas; a chocolate, mandarin, honeycomb and stem ginger dessert: each of them is a delicious architectural wonder – as if Zaha Hadid and Joan Miró had decided to open a cooking school. “The bizarre thing is that as a kid, I was stubborn,” David tells me. “I liked mashed potatoes and omelettes with raspberry jam!” These days, though, there’s definitely a sense of playfulness about both David and Pied a Terre’s offerings. It’s a quality that served him well when, at the age of 20, he went for his first big job interview with Alain Desenclos, restaurant director at Raymond Blanc’s Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. “I used to watch a TV program called Take Six Cooks, and I remember Raymond Blanc talking about restaurants and food being like an opera… then they panned across to Alain Desenclos, and I thought ‘God he looks scary!”’

Undeterred, David came up with a novel strategy for the interview. “I had to drive 243 miles from Blackpool to Great Milton. So, I thought ‘This seems like too good an opportunity not to have lunch!’ I put my smartest Freeman Hardy and Willis shoes on and my Burton’s grey suit with very thin grey tie,” he adds, laughing. Once he’d finished eating, David called the waiter over and said, “Could you tell Monsieur Desenclos that his 3pm appointment is here and would he like to join me at my table?”

“Everyone came out to have a good look at this guy who’d invited Alain to join him!” He landed a job as a waiter, but his progress to head waiter was hindered by his lack of French. “I was the only English waiter! I remember in the first couple of weeks I thought the French waiters were all big Smiths fans… because how do you say ‘I’m pissed off’ in French? ‘J’en ai marre’ – Johnny Marr!”

In 1998, David decided to buy a property close to the restaurant.“I’d been engaged a year, we were getting married and had got a small deposit together.” He narrowed his search to a 20-minute circle around Pied à Terre. “We explored Soho, Marylebone, Camden, but we just loved Bloomsbury.” David and his wife Val finally chose an “amazing space” on Gray’s Inn Road, close to many of the places they now hold dear in the area, from the small farm at Coram’s Fields to the British Museum and Sir John Soane’s Museum. One of Bloomsbury’s hidden gems is The Cockpit Arts Studio, an award-winning social enterprise and business incubator for craftspeople, which soon became one of David’s favourite haunts. “I saw the sign for their open studio and went in. Cabinet maker Toby Davies (Hunky Dory Furniture), immediately caught his eye. “I saw this beautiful sideboard with this pink inlaid leather on the front of it – very camp! You opened the drawers and it had purple leather on the bottom of each one –  it was magnificent!”  He later commissioned Toby to design tables for his restaurants, as well as some pieces for his home. Another favourite at the Studio is milliner Karen Henriksen. “Fabulous designs and each one crafted piece, such love and dedication to making!”

Following an article in the Evening Standard in which he’d sung Toby’s praises, Cockpit Arts chief executive Vanessa Swann offered him a position as a trustee. “I’ve been there three years and signed up for another two. We’ve done a couple of dinners here, and they brought movers and shakers in the craft world. It’s also a great opportunity to discover new craftsmen.” David also was also one of the first volunteers in Bloomsbury’s People’s Supermarket, a local food co-operative. “It’s such a good idea, the community coming together to work for everyone’s benefit. I had some real OCD issues when I was on duty though. I’d want all the canned drinks to face the same way and had to fill gaps immediately as it messed with the aesthetic!

“McKenna butchers. They have an old-fashioned craft that’s dying out and needs supporting… and they have great banter! It’s one of those amazing little spots where you go in and say ‘do you have some sweetbreads’, and they say how many kilos would you like? They’ve helped out Pied-à-Terre on more than one occasion!” At the end of our stroll around the neighbourhood, David jumps onto a Boris bike, his regular mode of transport, to head back to Pied à Terre. “We should get Phil Oakey to join us next time!” he shouts as he cycles off.