Saturday, January 29, 2011

Death of the High Street

The death of the UK's homogeneous High Streets has been promised for some time (and I'm in two minds whether I care or not), but it seems like it's happening before our eyes now on a daily basis with the recent demise of Woolworth's and HMV, Argos, GAME, JJB Sports, BHS and Clinton Cards looking like they're next in the firing line. Last month British retail sales suffered their worst December since 1998. The internet (and the snow!) was a big cause of this (not just online stores like Amazon but people downloading music, films, books, games etc), not to mention the big supermarkets now offering everything from car insurance to doctors, as well as food, clothes, electrical goods, books… in effect they're becoming mini-villages.

Cheap (to make), ugly, 'luxury' blocks of flats are springing up all over the place, almost overnight (much of the waterfront along the Thames have been ruined because of them – signs everywhere say no cycling or skateboarding allowed, even though they're on the waterfront, great for cycling along). Usually only affordable to young, affluent singles or couples (they're not really child-friendly, so where are all the families meant to go?), they have gyms, maybe a Carluccio's beneath them yet they feel devoid of life and character. Private, gated, no community, a wasteland – it's like what happened with council estates (but opposite – at least everyone's rich in these new blocks).

In the 1950s many council estates were built in the middle of nowhere with very little infrastructure such as public transport and shops, so people had to wait ages for the only bus to travel ages to get to the shops, or a tube station for work.

When (the former) we looked at a 'luxury' (ugly, cheaply made, tiny, ridiculously expensive) flat years ago in the middle of nowhere, near Kew, and asked where we were expected to get our newspaper and pint of milk, the reply was: 'The local retail park is about a mile away; M&S sell all that'. It's just not the same as walking to your local friendly newsagents; it seems so impersonal, not to mention a hassle having to drive to a supermarket just to get The Guardian.

So we'll all do our shopping at an ugly retail park in the middle of nowhere. The traditional high street will be for poor people, with half the shops boarded up, the other half consisting of betting shops (doing very well at the moment apparently) and Poundlands, 99p shops. (I've had a great idea for a new chain of shops; it's going to be huge: 98p shops… which reminds me – sort of – of when my NZ cousin came to visit and was very excited about a whole new way of shopping he'd heard about in the UK. I was intrigued and asked him more. 'It's called Argos', he said.)

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Fischer King: Bobby in Iceland

Window of the bookshop that Bobby Fischer visited daily

We were driving in the dark (this time of year there's only four hours of light a day) through a town called Selfoss some 60km south of Reykjavik, Iceland. My companion Hinrik pointed out a light beside a mountain just outside the town. He said Bobby Fischer was buried there. Then he said, offhandedly, 'I knew him, you know.' I looked at him. 'Yes, really, I knew him.'

Hinrik was a young man when he first met chess grandmaster Robert James Fischer in Reykjavik in 1972. The American Fischer was there for the now-legendary world chess championship against the Russian Boris Spassky that was seen as more than mere chess: it was a Cold War battle, the USA Vs. the USSR. When Bobby won, it was a victory for the west, for democracy, for freedom and the American way. It made Fischer world chess champion, and an instant celebrity. Yet his chess career essentially ended in 1972; Fischer withdrew from public life and chess-playing and would not play a competitive game for almost 20 years.

At the time (1972), Hinrik was trying to sell silk-screen printed T-shirts. He approached an American smoking a cigar (for permission to sell them) who somehow – I didn't quite grasp how or why – introduced him to Bobby Fischer, who was in the next room. They spoke for five minutes.

Over the years Hinrik would occasionally bump into Fischer at Reykjavik airport, and they became friends. When Fischer moved to Iceland in 2005, Hinrik would often see him shuffling along the street on his own, and would offer him a lift in his car. Once, knowing of another American in exile, Hinrik introduced Fischer to him and the two spoke non-stop for nine hours. But Fischer was lonely in Iceland, a lost, shuffling and shambling figure.

After violating a United Nations trade embargo by playing chess in Yugoslavia in 1992 (he beat Spassky in an unofficial rematch), and owing the Revenue Service income tax, Fischer never returned home to the United States. He drifted and lived variously in Japan, the Philippines, Germany and Hungary. Iceland, a liberal country of chess fanatics, granted him a passport in 2005. It seems somehow appropriate that he ended up there, the place that made him a world champion in 1972.

Hinrik told me about a secondhand bookshop Fischer used to go to every day and chat with the owner. I found the bookshop the following day, Bokin ehf, on Klappastigur 25-27. It was like a cliche of a secondhand bookshop; piles of precariously balanced books everywhere and the owner almost buried under them. He looked like he hadn't moved for years. I asked him if this was the bookshop Bobby Fischer had come to. 'Yes,' he said, abruptly. I asked him if he'd known Fischer. 'No,' he said, abruptly. Then he fixed me with a stare. 'I'm not interested in…[rest of sentence inaudible]'. But I got the message. My Fischer trail had ended.

• Fischer died in 2008. His remains are to be exhumed to settle a bitter dispute over his £1 million estate.

• I've put some of my photos from Iceland on Flickr.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Chessed Out
The Tournament
Top 10 Chess Openings

Thursday, January 27, 2011

London through its charity shops #6: Fulham

On the North End Road with its vibrant fruit & veg markets, ethnic grocers and cheap household goods shops are a few charity shops. Cancer Research is cramped; The British Heart Foundation is pretty big with lots of cheap CDs, books and DVDs. A little further along is a spacious FARA, split over two floors; clothes are good, CDs and DVDS not. Lots of crappy records. The place feels a bit grubby.

On the Fulham Road, walking from Fulham Broadway towards Bishops Park, things go unsurprisingly upmarket. Except the Teddy Bear Children Support which looked like it had just opened – as it stood, it was rubbish, with stuff on the floor and very little order. It might be better now*. There's a very nice MIND with cheap £1 CDs. Trinity Hospice was also very nice. FARA Kids we didn't bother with. Geranium Shops for the Blind was likewise very nice, and clean, but pricey. FARA was good, promising, but didn't quite deliver. Lots of pictures and frames.

There's only one charity shop on the Fulham Palace Road, the catchily-titled Youth Development Summer Camp Project Charity Shop. It's like a jumble sale (in a good way). Lots of records but impossible to get to them because of all the clutter (the pleasant American who worked there said he'd sort them out for me for the next time I was there).

Barngains of the Day: nowt, nada, nothing. That's the way it goes some days.

UPDATE 5/9/11
A few minutes walk from Fulham Broadway tube a swanky YMCA charity shop has opened, at 611 Fulham Road. Spacious, clean and reasonably priced with helpful staff, it has a good range of clothes and bric-a-brac.

Walking up Fulham Road the opposite way, towards South Kensington, there's a nice little Octavia, just opposite Cineworld. I'd never noticed it before. Further along still, is a pretty basic and temporary Relief Fund For Romania charity shop.

*It's actually vanished.

The YMCA has vanished. It was actually one of my favourite charity shops, purely because of two lucky purchases: Roxy Music's The Thrill of it all 4CD box set (£2; pretty rare – always goes for over £30 on eBay) and Bob Marley and the Wailer's' Catch a Fire LP with the original zippo cover (this one can go for over £100 on eBay; I paid 93p.)

However, two new charity shops have popped up on the North End Road: an average Sue Ryder and a Shelter, which mainly has clothes and new stuff.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Cover: The Innocence of Father Brown

Cover design by Romek Marber, a Polish graphic designer most famous for his 1960s Crime Series covers for Penguin books. Father Brown is most famous for his 'odd appearance: a short dumpy man with a moon face, a dog collar, a large umbrella, and an absentminded air'.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Nothing is invented

'Everything that can be invented has been invented.'
– Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899

Poor Charles – not only did he not actually say the above line (or indeed resign from his job because he thought there were no more patents to be made), but he's been quoted as saying it for the past hundred years or so. And mocked for saying it.

I wish he had said it. I would agree with him. Just about everything produced since 1899 has been a development, not an invention.

TV is just a progression from moving photographs; the internet is just an extension of the telegraph wire; CDs and CD players from records and phonographs; computers from adding machines (just look at the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient computer made between 100 and 150 BCE), etc. In fact, just about everything we think is a new invention was probably originally invented in Victorian times or before.

• I've just discovered Google Patents

Saturday, January 22, 2011

New David Carson magazine covers

It's just like buses. Nothing for ages (magazine-wise anyway) from graphic design legend David Carson, then suddenly he's designed two covers in a month: the latest issues of Huck, a skate & snowboarding mag, and Little White Lies, a great, quirky film title, both published by creative agency The Church of London.

Apparently there's a tradition for the two magazines to link their covers once a year. And though there are similarities between the two Carson covers (most obviously they're both black & white), last year the the link was rather more apparent – if they were stacked together correctly in the newsagent's.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Transworld Skateboarding Magazine Covers

Monday, January 17, 2011

Random Film Review: Hausu (House)

Dir: Nobuhiko Obavashi
| Japan | 1977 | 87mins

This is the most bonkers film I've seen for some time. I'm not sure whether it's a masterpiece or a joke; probably both. Conceived by the director's eleven-year-old daughter, there are moments of genuine horror, beauty and eroticism; and many more moments of genuine kitsch and tacky 70s-style video effects. It's also very funny. There's a possessed, evil, Louis Wain-style crazy white cat called Snowy. A severed head bites a girl's bottom; a girl gets eaten by a piano only to have her severed fingers play the keys. It seems safe to say that it influenced Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films (and there's a scene which is a dead ringer of Ring).

It takes the now staple horror tradition of a group of young people staying in an old haunted house and one by one getting killed. In this case, it's six Japanese girls whose names reflect their personalities: Gorgeous, Fantasy, Prof, Sweet, Melody and Kung Fu. Like most horror films, it's less concerned with plot and more concerned with how many imaginative ways the annoying teenagers can be killed, as well as how many psychedelic, hallucinatory visual effects can be fit into one scene. Stop motion animation, collage, black & white, superimpositions and crazy, inappropriate music are all employed to give a visually astonishing, surreal roller coaster ride into another world. A psychedelic Dario Argento with a sense of humour meets The Wizard of Oz? Watch it and decide for yourself.

• Hausu is out now on DVD.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The amazing Harry Smith

'I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music.'
– Harry Smith, 1991

I've been meaning to do a post on Harry Smith for some time, so what better (and easier) way than to direct you to one of my favourite (and most prolific – and he's got a day job!) bloggers, designer John Coulthart, who goes by the name Feuilleton.

John's recent post on Harry Smith gives a link to one of his films, Heaven and Earth Magic, which can be viewed on Ubuweb, a great website I look at occasionally and have mentioned previously, such as here and here.

To a certain extent Harry Smith reminds me of Paul Bowles. Bowles had two distinct careers: one as a composer and one as a writer – and never the two shall meet. Likewise with Harry Smith; those who knew his experimental films didn't know about his music; those who knew his music didn't know about his films. Also like Bowles, Smith seemed to always be in the right place at the right time, socialising and/or working with the glamorous and avant-garde, including Jimmy Page, Allen Ginsberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Janis Joplin and Robert Mapplethorpe; though his chameleon-like personality made him equally at home with, say, American Indians (with whom he lived for a year and produced a record of the peyote songs of the Kiowa) and local drug dealers.

Filmmaker, collector, artist, ethnomusicologist, magician, genius and bohemian, Harry Everett Smith was born in Portland, Oregon in 1923 and died in the Chelsea Hotel, New York, in 1991. In 1952 Folkway Records released what is arguably Smith's most important and influential contribution to mankind: The Anthology of American Folk Music. This six record set of old blues, folk and country songs Smith had compiled from his huge collection of records from the 1920s and 30s. Without Smith, these songs would have been forgotten and a significant slice of American history would have been erased. The anthology was important for reviving American folk music in the 1950s and 60s; for folk singers such as Dylan, Baez and Dave Von Ronk, it was the Bible.

But this is only one aspect of Smith's legacy. He was an important underground filmmaker, exploring techniques of stop-motion animation and hand-painting directly onto film. He collected obscure things like Seminole textiles and Ukrainian Easter Eggs and apparently had the largest paper airplane collection in the world. He was a leading authority on string figures. He compiled the only known concordance of the Enochian system (forward and reverse)*. In his last years, Smith was a 'shaman in residence'. Now you can't get a better job title than that.

*Though I have no idea what this means.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

London through its charity shops #5: King's Road, Chelsea

We start the King's Road in, er, the New King's Road, just by Putney Bridge Station (which is actually in Fulham). Here, on our right about half a mile along, is a very nice FARA, with vintage clothes on the ground floor and reasonably priced books and music in the basement.

Then there's nothing till King's Road proper, where, in the district known as World's End (named after a pub, but more appropriately because of the huge sink estate there), near the famous Vivienne Westwood boutique (now called World's End, but in the 1970s it was called SEX and run by Vivienne and Malcolm, selling torn clothes – and calling them punk – for lots of money. Sid Vicious worked there for a while) with the large clock whizzing backwards on its facade, are three pretty good charity shops.

Just a few doors down from the World's End boutique is an Oxfam with good music and books. Barngain of the Day: Robert Wyatt, Shleep CD, £2.99.*

On the opposite side of the road is an okay Cancer Research and a Trinity Hospice, which has some interesting bric-a-brac. A little further up is an unspectacular Octavia, with hardly any books, music or DVDs. Just off the King's Road, on Old Church Street, are two British Red Cross shops next to each other. One has clothes and the other has plenty of books (reasonable), music (cheap) and pictures (pricey). There's a (black) Oxfam boutique a bit further on; mostly vintage clothes, a few books, very small and pricey.

*I've been getting into Robert Wyatt and Soft Machine recently partly because of my mum's friend, Pat. In the 1970s, she was living on a beach in the South of France, working as a go-go dancer and living with the band members of Soft Machine. You'd never tell by looking at her.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Stuttering in the Movies

Peter Lorre: 'You talk so smooth… you have an answer for everything.'
Humprey Bogart: 'Whatcha want me to do? Learn how to stutter?'
– The Maltese Falcon (1941)

John Wayne (to small boy): 'You're gonna stop that stutter or get the hell out of here.'
– The Cowboys (1972)

Hume Cronyn (to Warren Beatty): 'Have you ever laughed at a comedian when he pretended to stutter? There's nothing funny about a man who stutters, but people laugh. They're amused. But they're not happy about it.'
– The Parallax View (1974)

Colin Firth had better watch out. The King's Speech is his third outing as a stutterer (after A Month in the Country and, er, something else I can't seem to find the name of). People will be wondering if he really does have a speech impediment. For its sensitive portrayal of a stutterer, the film is being hailed as a positive landmark for sufferers (will it do for stuttering what Rain Man did for autism? Er, by that I mean, like, nothing at all. Probably, yes.), with chairman of the BSA (British Stammering Association) hailing it as a "once-in-a-generation moment to create change and to increase awareness" and Firth's performance being tipped for an Oscar (Hugh Grant must be weeping: he's been mumbling, bumbling, stuttering and hesitating most of his career and never had a sniff of an Oscar – at least I hope he hasn't).

Most films with stutterers in them are depicted as either socially inferior, nervous, timid people to laugh at and tease (The Life of Brian, A Fish Called Wanda*, probably some Adam Sandler film); scary, crazy or idiotic people to be afraid of (Do The Right Thing, My Cousin Vinny, Primal Fear, Die Hard with a Vengeance**, Smokey and the Bandit II) or suicidal mental patients (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Whereas many other afflictions/disabilities (which is it? Both?) are out of bounds for many films, stuttering seems ripe for mockery.

Stuttering in films goes way back to Tom Browning's sublime Freaks from 1932, which features actual carnival performers, including a bearded woman, conjoined twins, midgets, 'pinheads', the 'human torso' and… a stutterer. Well, he isn't actually part of the carnival (he's married to one of the twins) but his affliction does seem to make him as much of an outcast and figure for mockery as the other 'freaks'. (The somewhat simple moral of the story is that the beautiful 'normal' people turn out to be evil and the 'freaks' turn out to be kind-hearted. The stutterer just seems an idiot.)

See also: Hitchcock's Rope, Glory, South Park, Broadway Danny Rose, Take the Money and Run (Louise, Virgil Starkwell's girlfriend, stutters when nervous. She was beaten as a child and had a strict upbringing), Flirting, The Stepford Wives (a husband with a stutter is mocked for his 'interest in accents' and believing he doesn't have much of a stutter) Shaft, Pan's Labyrinth, The Right Stuff, Shakespeare in Love, The Sweet Smell of Success and Tarkovsky's astonishing Mirror, 'a non-narrative, stream of consciousness autobiographical film-poem' which begins with a boy being cured of a stutter by hypnosis. It never worked with me. Then again, King George VI was never cured of his stutter either.

*We can forgive Michael Palin for portraying someone with such a bad stutter; his father stuttered and the actor sponsors the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children.
**But can we forgive Bruce Willis for taking the piss out of Jeremy Iron's stuttering in Die Hard with a Vengeance? Willis did used to have a stutter after all; and has been in other movies which feature a stutterer – The Sixth Sense and Color of Night.

Previously on Barnflakes: Stuttering in music

FYI: This is post 300

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Back to Work Session

I had to attend a Back to Work Session yesterday at my local Jobcentre Plus (soon to be renamed and rebranded Jobcentre Minus by the new government). Slightly reminiscent of John Hughes's seminal brat pack flick The Breakfast Club, with a group of motley yet quirky stereotypes (criminal, chav, nerd, brat, brain, etc) forced to sit and endure each other and listen to what we already know about not being able to find a job, it was in fact a rather sobering experience.

Most of the group were quiet and obedient, answering questions when asked by the session leader, with the exception of the black criminal and the teenage female chav, who were amusingly aggressive. They spent ten minutes debating the need to be there at all (if they'd just shut up it would have been over in half the time). The chav was all 'whatever', loud tuts and texting incessantly on her Blackberry. The criminal was irate over a misunderstanding with the session leader about what the term 'mandatory' meant.

Things went swimmingly for ten minutes or so, with a PowerPoint presentation telling us what we already knew. We were each asked what jobs we were looking for ('anything'; 'bar work'; 'driving' etc). The criminal and the chav obviously felt an affinity for each other's predicament and backed each other up for the final battle.

The chav had three children and was being evicted from her house; how could she be expected to find a £6 an hour job then pay a nanny £20 an hour? She wanted to raise her children, not work, but she wasn't allowed. She'd been previously advised to put her kids into care.

The criminal had been in prison a few times. He had a family to feed which a normal job just didn't pay enough for, so he had to resort to criminal activities. He had a husky yet soothing and commanding voice, which seemed to make his criminal enterprises seem quite logical. But his criminal record had prevented him getting a job and he genuinely seemed to want help.

There was nothing anyone could do for either of them.

The session leader, trying no doubt to placate them, did seem to agree and sympathise with them (everyone else seemed to be staring at the floor). He said he was just a pawn in the game; he just did what he was told. He said the new government didn't care for people like us. He said even more cuts were on the way. He essentially said we were all fucked. And then, adopting his official position once again, and without a trace of irony, told us to 'stay positive'.

The chav and criminal were understandably angry people, frustrated by a system designed to keep them at the bottom. At the beginning of the session, I thought they were both annoying clichés. By the end, they had won me round with their honesty, their sense of humour, their not going down without a fight attitude. Just like in The Breakfast Club.

On the way out, an out of work PA (middle class, uptight, overweight, glasses) who was at the session, turned to me and said, 'How aggressive was that girl?' I had to agree, pretty aggressive, but said she perhaps had good reason to be. Then she said, 'Maybe if she'd heard of contraception she wouldn't be in the mess she's in'. Who knows, maybe, but a slightly harsh comment, perhaps.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sex Workers' Cards Gilbert & George Style

It seems I'm in esteemed company. For their latest exhibition at White Cube, Gilbert & George will feature sex workers' cards found in phone boxes, as well as tacky tourist postcards and flyers. And judging by the comments from Guardian readers to an article about the exhibition, Gilbert, George and I are not the only ones to have collected them over the years.

I got most of these in the early 1990s. I can't remember why I started collected them (no, I never called the numbers); I was at art college at the time, it was probably an art project of some kind (no, really). I do prefer these rather quaint, old fashioned cards with their hand-drawn/badly photocopied look to the more modern, full colour, photographic ones. Not that I've looked for some years now. Do they still exist? Do phone boxes still exist? I'm guessing the internet and mobiles have rendered them both obsolete. Maybe they'll be worth something one day.

• The Urethra Postcard Pictures runs at White Cube, Mason's Yard, from Friday til 19 Feb 2011.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The London Nobody Knows (Book & DVD)

Main picture: James Mason in front of the Roundhouse in the film of the book; inset: Fletcher's book, Penguin edition, 1965.

"A man can do everything better in London – think better, eat and cheat better, even enjoy the country better"
– Geoffrey Fletcher, The London Nobody Knows (1962)

Obsessed with gas lamps, back alleys, public lavatories, catacombs, markets, Gothic architecture, crumbling houses and disused music halls, Geoffrey Fletcher writes of a disappearing Victorian London; of concrete high-rise blocks springing up and destroying London's more interesting and less known past. This was in 1962 but it's happening every day as London constantly reinvents itself and cares little for history and even less for nooks and crannies.

Though now we are familiar with psychogeography through writers such as Ian Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, back in the 1960s Fletcher was treading an unbeaten path with his series of books on the obscurer parts of London. He wrote over a dozen books about the city, the most famous being The London Nobody Knows.

As he states in his introduction, Fletcher is concerned with the 'crummiest areas' of London which, at the time of his writing, included Hoxton, Shoreditch, Camden Town and Islington. Times may have changed but luckily some of the sights Fletcher writes about are still with us (as this blog on Spitalfields shows). We're in good company with Fletcher with his lightness of tone, and fine pen and ink drawings which populate the book. Most of all, though, it's his passion bordering on obsession for the city which shines through.

The London Nobody Knows used to be found for 50p in any second hand bookshop; now it has become quite collectible, possibly because of an interest in writers such as Iain Sinclair and psychogeography in general. Jokers on eBay are even trying to get £45 for it, though much cheaper copies are to be had (I got a one from a secondhand bookshop in Wiltshire for £2.50). Conversely, the film of the book used to be almost impossible to get hold of; now it can be bought on Amazon for less than £7.

Actor James Mason somewhat incongruously presents the documentary (which was written by Fletcher), gaily swinging his umbrella round depressing 1960s London, still seeming like it's recovering from the Second World War. This was the height of flower power, apparently, but apart from a few shots of short skirts and bell bottoms on Carnaby Street, the London of 1967 looks a dull, grey place, peopled by toothless lost-looking old men, frumpy women and grubby children.

Mason guides us round London's crumbling music halls, railways, pie and mash caffs, eel shops, markets, Salvation Army hostels and other fascinating places, including an egg-breaking factory. The film is probably taken from several of Fletcher's books as it doesn't cover all the ground the book does and introduces other elements, such as meth drinkers (and Fletcher did write another book called Down Among The Meths Men…), interviews with Salvation Army inmates and street performers (then, a dying breed, apparently; now, an annoying pestilence).

If The London Nobody Knows is part social comment and part historical document, the other film included on the DVD, Les Bicyclettes De Belsize (a pretentious and pointless reference to Les Parapluies De Cherbourg, presumably) is clichéd 60s swinging London at its worst, an extremely tedious love story that feels a lot longer than its 29 minutes. (Some DVDs extras for The London Nobody Knows would have been great. Some outtakes, perhaps. It's a shame a series of films about London wasn't produced.)

Listen to the ever-enthusiastic Dan Cruickshank follow in Fletcher's (a hero of Dan's) footsteps on BBC Radio 4. Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd are both briefly interviewed.

Read Bob Stanley's (of indie-band Saint Etienne) article about the documentary in The Guardian. When the band made their first film, Finisterre, The London Nobody Knows was their guide.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

London through its charity shops #4: East Sheen

East Sheen is like a posh village between Putney and Richmond; you'd hardly notice it hurtling (or even crawling) along the Upper Richmond Road. Consisting of nice little coffee houses and quirky, independent shops, it also has nine charity shops – more than twice as many as nearby Richmond. But we all know quantity doesn't mean quality.

Approaching East Sheen from Putney, a seemingly makeshift Octavia is the first port of call; a bit dull with not much variety. Mind is a little further up. And quite enticing it is too, with plenty of books, records and CDs; it's interesting, vibrant and cheap. Barngains of the Day: Panda Bear, Person Pitch CD, £1; hip flask, £2.

Crossing over and near the crossroads is a Cancer Research with decent bric-a-brac but not many books. Inexplicably, CDs and DVDs are piled on top of each other in a glass cabinet, rendering them rather difficult to look at. Some £1 records.

Over the road again, on the corner, is a Barnado's. Nice bric-a-brac, tidy, but uninspiring. Crossing the road is a fine Princess Alice Hospice. We were almost tempted by a 10-piece Susie Cooper tea set for £20. Neat, with a nice layout and good crockery. Barngain of the day: Joan Baez in Concert, Part II, CD, £2. FYI: Joan is 70 today! Further along is an okay FARA. Towards the end of the parade of shops is another Octavia, which has lots of books, records and CDs; it's pretty interesting and quirky.

Down Sheen Lane is where things get interesting (sort of), with a bunch of odd non-chain charity shops. The Children's Society has lots of (pretty bad) £1 records. Books are well organised. Quite nice. The Missing Foundation is a bit stark but quite interesting and cheap. A good selection of picture frames. I was tempted by a pair of as new Converse All Stars sneakers, £6, but Barngain of the day was an old Players cigarette tin (above), £1. The Youth Education Sport Charity Shop is like a jumble sale – inside and outside. Good children's books and toys.

Update 4/3/11
The Children's Society has closed down.

Update 1/12:
There has been a Shelter charity shop for a while on the Upper Richmond Road, almost opposite Cancer Research. It just sells clothes so I didn't linger long.

• If you've made it this far (I know, doubtful) you may as well walk five minutes more and check out Sir Richard Francis Burton's (and his wife's) concrete Bedouin tent tomb; it's quite extraordinary.

• There used to be a good Oxfam book shop in East Sheen but it's vanished, so no Oxfam at all now.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Found: 1697 William III half penny coin

As a child I used to hunt for firewood with my dad in skips and on the banks of the Thames; with my mum I used to go to jumble sales. As an adult I frequent charity shops and car boot sales. I comb beaches for fossils and ditches for old road signs. It probably goes without saying that I've spent most of my life looking in the gutter for treasure.

My brother was never interested in any of these things so it irks me somewhat that, after a post-Christmas family walk through Richmond* Park, and along the Thames, then up to Petersham, near Ham House, he finds a 1697 William III half penny coin worth up to £300 on the pavement. And then is completely blasé and nonplussed about it.

Offers in excess of £150, please.

*It feels like I haven't left Richmond for at least the past week. This is my last Richmond-related post. For a while. I promise.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

London through its charity shops #3: Richmond

There are only four charity shops in Richmond; thankfully a couple of them are pretty good.

Opposite Waterstone's on the corner is a Cancer Research, which has good stock, though quite expensive; CDs are £3 (a pound more than Putney's) but a good selection. Oxfam and Octavia are located on the other end of the High Street, near the train station. Oxfam has a nice feel to it with friendly staff and great books (including an antiquarian section), records and CDs. A bit pricey, though, so I'm hesitant to say Barngains of the Day, but: Tortoise's debut CD, £2.99; International Lonely Guy, paintings by Harland Miller (hardback book), £9.99.

I love old Penguin books and find Miller's huge canvases of (invented) Penguin book covers both nostalgic and subversive (and pretty funny). Jarvis Cocker is a fan and he (along with several others, including Ed Ruscha, an obvious inspiration for Miller) interviews the artist for the book. It has great reproductions of Miller's (who went to Chelsea College of Art the same time as I did) paintings.

Octavia, a few doors along, comes across as a disappointment, being pretty dark, small and stark. There's not a proper changing room and too much new stuff.

Marie Curie Cancer Care, round the corner and next to Waitrose, is small and uninspiring. The bric-a-brac is a tad pricey but the books and CDs cheap. They have an occasional gem, such as my Barngain of the Day: The Work of Director Spike Jonze (dual-layer DVD, consisting of Jonze's music videos – including The Beastie Boys classic Sabotage – and various short films), £2.

Related: I posted a comment on a recent Guardian article about how great Oxfam is. The article mentioned how nothing at Oxfam is wasted; I had to beg to differ (comment 50-something, under Barnflakes).

September 2011 Update
Octavia is no more. Marie Curie Cancer Care has stopped selling books and CDs – it's just clothes now.

However – crossing over Richmond bridge I came across four charity shops on the other side. Is this still Richmond? Let's say it is, though it may be St. Margarets or Twickenham. Anyway, crossing the bridge away from Richmond, on the left once over the bridge on Richmond Road are four charity shops quite close to each other. They all seemed really nice; funky, good quality and clean: Octavia, Fara, Princess Alice Hospice and Mind.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

King Henry's Mound

Another random photo of nothing (you're asking yourself)? Au contraire, this is the view from King Henry VIII's Mound in Richmond Park (a short walk from Ian Dury's solar-powered bench), where you can see a clear view (on a clear day; and take a decent photo, with a decent camera) straight through to St. Paul's Cathedral, ten miles away. It is one of only eight protected views through central London looking towards St. Paul's.

The view from the other side is, if anything, more impressive, with panoramic views of the Thames valley including Windsor castle thirteen miles away.

Originally a burial mound, the (vegan) people I was with found it somewhat shocking that anything at all was allowed to be built on it. Most other burial mounds or barrows are protected, sacred sights. As it stands, there's a spiral path leading up to the top of the mound with various plaques, benches and a telescope. And lots of tourists.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Reasons to be Cheerful

This is the Ian Dury solar-powered park bench memorial in Poet's Corner, Richmond Park, south west London. I don't think it works any more (the bench was unveiled in 2002), but visitors were able to plug in headphones and listen to eight Dury songs and an interview with the singer, who died of cancer in 2000. Ian Dury apparently spent many happy hours in Richmond Park with his family. The bench was designed by product designer Mil Strichevic (though it looks like a normal bench, on the armrests are solar panels with headphone sockets on the sides).