The Streets of London

Blog — 18 Jun 2024

Roger Mayne is perhaps best known for his black and white photographs of Southam Street in North Kensington. Dating from the mid to late 1950’s they capture daily life in the gritty post war slums with humour and empathy. The rump of Southam Street is still there, rebuilt at the same time as Trellick Tower, but Roger Mayne would not recognise it today.

Southam Street Group, North Kensington, London, Roger Mayne, 1956

Sixty of Mayne’s photographs form the first ever exhibition of photography at The Courtauld. “Youth” is a documentary of our recent past, and for anyone interested in London it is well worth seeing. Ten years after the end of the Second World War the Southam Street terraces were clearly still in a very poor state. The former Labour MP Alan Johnson was born and brought up in Southam Street in the fifties, in fact his sister appears in one of Mayne’s photographs. Johnson's book, “This Boy” describes his life and upbringing in a cramped and dingy flat. As Mayne’s imagery shows, these densely occupied houses gave the streets outside a heightened value as public realm, people needed to get out of their tiny homes and the streets became the natural playground for children and a meeting place for teenagers and adults, they were not, of course, without menace.

After visiting the exhibition and walking from the Courtauld to Haymarket early on Saturday evening these thoughts were on my mind. London’s streets have always been at the heart of its public life, from the football and dancing that Mayne records in working class areas to the flâneurs of Mayfair and the nightlife of Soho.

Strolling down The Strand, Fortunino Matania 1929

The Strand had particular significance, it was the thoroughfare that linked the City to Westminster and as a result it was lined with the great independent banks, Inns of Court and elegant hotels, restaurants and theatres. Sadly, Saturday’s early evening stroll was a fairly depressing affair. Poorly maintained footpaths narrowed by road works, litter and rubbish piled high, discarded Lime bikes cluttering the pavement, rough sleepers and soup kitchen queues, and perhaps worst of all the constant din of loud music coming from the dozens of unlicensed Rickshaws that ply their trade in the centre of London these days. The Strand was very busy with tourists and theatre goers, but what a dis-spiriting impression it must make on people who are trying to enjoy a night out in what should be one of the great global cities

Abandoned Lime Bikes, The Strand 2024
Homeless, The Strand 2024
Rickshaw, The Strand 2024
Soup kitchen queue, just off The Strand 2024

Today, street crime, filthy and rubbish strewn pavements, unreliable, overcrowded and smelly tube trains seem to be the accepted norm. One has to wonder how London has been allowed to descend to this level? London is a Labour city, its Labour Mayor, Sadiq Kahn, is now in his third term, this means that Labour will have controlled the GLA (Greater London Authority) for 20 out of the last 28 years since the inception of the GLA. As Mayor, Kahn has no one else to blame, his administration seems to be more concerned with virtue signalling and self-promotion than ensuring London is a city that is safe, clean and pleasant to visit and live in.

The forthcoming General Election will almost certainly deliver a Labour government with a manifesto to right the wrongs of the last fourteen years of Tory rule. On the basis of Sadiq Kahn and Labour's performance in London I hold out little hope that things are going to get better.