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Archive for November, 2017

Guest Post.
Fifty years past. The Summer of Love ; Sgt Pepper; homosexuality decriminalised. Momentous events. Ursula Jeffries remembers her time as a young executive in London. 

It is hard to see yourself as part of history but there comes a time….

I was always a south London girl but July 1967 was when I really started to get to know the city. There were few gap years in those days so my graduate traineeship began straight away and I was whisked from the dreaming spires into what was known by the inmates as the tomb of the unknown borrower. The Abbey National headquarters building in Baker Street can still be seen in its imposing nearly art deco glory. Now divided into flats, it was then the ultimate functional commercial building of the sixties straddling the old and the new. Almost the whole of the ground floor was taken up by the computer, below ground were machines devoted to efficient direct mail and deep dark corridors of client files. The public view was mainly a grand banking hall and sight of an elegant lift to the working offices; this was operated by a Hungarian refugee, by all accounts a professor in his time. Visitors often looked for Sherlock Holmes and would get a response to a letter.

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The Abbey National Building, Baker Street. Today only the facade survives.

While modern management sought to brand the building society as up to date and swinging with cutting edge advertising campaigns and window displays (Happy National) many of the old guard clung to the old ways especially the logo of a couple holding an umbrella shaped like a roof. Much time was spent on keeping the silhouette of the lady in contemporary style. The length of skirts affected me as well. For the last three years I had been assiduously cutting off the hems of coats and skirts as the mini skirt took over. I literally had nothing to wear in a traditional office except my interview suit and only expensive shops had anything of suitable length. I had to wait until 1968 to afford Carnaby Street. My mother had sorted the problem of my waist length hippy hair by buying me a haircut at Vidal Sassoon and the change was so radical that my own boyfriend didn’t recognise me. I found the formality of the organisation difficult to absorb and I was the first female graduate in this post but they were very welcoming to me despite paying less salary on account of my gender. I had subsidised lunch in the middle management dining room and my own secretary; hierarchies were still firmly embedded.

Outside, the noisy, dirty streets were familiar to me. Red buses, telephone and post boxes, commercial traffic. Although much of the war damage had been dealt with the place was grimy, not helped by the massive level of cigarette smoking indoors and out. Nobody thought twice about it and the beleaguered nonsmokers didn’t complain much. I soon took a room in a shared flat which was affordable and near Baker Street – I could walk to work alongside Regents Park if I chose. I felt very safe as I started to get to get to know the different villages of London and there was an air of change for the better, unthreatening and fun. The only problem being that there was far too much to do.

On the South Bank the Festival Hall floated by the river representing British design and the modern London to come. The cafeteria was a great meeting point, snug between the bridges, ugly Hungerford and elegant Waterloo, and the promise of the Festival of Britain still hovered in the air as the riverside developments continued. The Old Vic had evolved from a Shakespeare rep to an embryonic National Theatre. Anyone lucky enough to be working and to have connections to the arts was privileged to be witness to a confident flowering of culture. I missed seeing Jimi Hendrix and Ray Charles but I did get to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I didn’t have time or money for a television although I did have my Dansette record player. Back in the suburbs life was changing at a slower pace but pop music was a shared revolution and although views varied as to its ‘suitability’ it was absorbed much more than hippy culture was ever going to be.

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And what became of the hippies? On a hot summer afternoon we came out of the Curzon where we had watched Blowup. A commotion in Hyde Park attracted us and we found ourselves in the midst of hundreds of flower children dancing, ringing bells and floating in a fragrant mist. Music thumped in the distance and a poet declaimed from the top of a step ladder to anyone still in a state to listen. Free marijuana was the message; the demonstration was very gentle as were the police that we saw. One could trace their many influences but on that day it just felt like a dream – and you only had to breathe in to feel part of it!

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DSC09938b_200Next week the remains of the Temple of Mithras will be open to public view once again. Unloved and open to the elements for almost fifty years, the development of its original site by the financial information giant Bloomberg presented an excellent opportunity to give this highly significant Roman building the type of home it deserves. Bloomberg, Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) and other partners have enthusiastically and painstakingly carried out a project which unearthed by far the largest number of ancient Roman artifacts from a single British site. The quality and variety of them are truly staggering. The survival of many of the perishable objects – typically wood and leather – is thanks to the muddy conditions in the vicinity of the lost river Walbrook. The most significant object of the dig must surely be a tablet from circa 53AD which mentions “Londinium”, the oldest known reference of this name.

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There were Mithraeums in most urban centres of the Roman Empire. Its symbol was Mithras killing a bull with a knife.

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This tablet is inscribed with the earliest known use of the word Londinium.

As someone whose degree strongly featured ancient Rome and who has visited the Eternal City many times over past decades, I’ve always been a bit sniffy about what I considered the paucity of London’s surviving Roman remains. With the best will in the world, there can be no comparison. The bits of Roman wall near the Tower and the ribbon along London Wall combined with the Roman bath house in Lower Thames Street hardly set the pulse racing. Perhaps that’s just me. But with this new development to add to the Roman amphitheatre installation beneath Guildhall Yard – only discovered in the 1990s – that has all changed very significantly indeed, I think.

Londinium was, after all, the beginning of this most historical of cities. Suddenly, with the addition of the London Mithraeum, we have, I feel, a truly weighty and credible Roman London collection for all visitors to enjoy and Londoners to be proud of.

We must thank and congratulate Bloomberg for not just paying lipservice to our heritage but for embracing it and wholeheartedly backing this project. An example for all businesses and developers to follow.


Find out more and book your free places at the London Mithraeum.

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