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The Road to Nowhere

DON’T BLAME THE JEWS! 182 HOUSES AND TWENTY-EIGHT BUSINESSES WERE DEMOLISHED FOR A LONDON ROAD THAT COULDN’T BE BUILT
DISCUSSED
Tim Moore, Londonized Monopoly, The Turkish “Funny Bike Scam,” Lord PooFun, Less Passion From Less Protein, This Man’s Father, The National Sulphuric Acid Association, Leadville, J.B. Priestly, A40 Arterial Road, Harold Clunn
by Paul Collins
Illustration by Gilbert

The Road to Nowhere

Paul Collins
8 Snaps

Here’s an idea for a book: Take a Monopoly board. Roll the dice. Now, visit each street you land on in person, and write about it.

Yes, it’s a gimmick. But it happens to be a very good gimmick, so it’s surprising to find that Do Not Pass Go, a Tim Moore travelogue published in the UK last year by Picador, has not appeared in America. I suppose editors thought we wouldn’t understand it, because he is using a British board. Yet the Monopoly set that British children grow up with has the same numerical values as the American original (£6 rent, instead of $6), the same property group colors, and many identically ludicrous cards—“Bank error in your favour,” an absurdist statement if ever I heard one. Only the streets are all different: The board is Londonized. Cheapskate crash pads Baltic and Mediterranean are replaced with Old Kent Road and Whitechapel; snooty money-bags living on Park Place and Boardwalk now find themselves in Park Lane and Mayfair. Free Parking still functions as an informal lottery, and damn the rules book: Some things stay the same the world over.

Moore starts by duly noting the game’s history. Monopoly was invented on a Philadelphia kitchen table in 1930 by Charles Darrow, who then blah blah blah blah… there’s no point. We all read the rule book when we were eight, we know the fable. Now, here’s what Parker Brothers conveniently omitted: Darrow stole it.

That’s right, Darrow cheated at Monopoly. Just a few miles from Darrow’s home, in 1904, Elizabeth Magie had also created a board game titled Monopoly. It was born complete with the famous layout of nine properties per side, Go and Go To Jail corners, as well as the railways, the waterworks, and power company. Her game was a satire on capitalist speculators. And so, like all great critiques of capitalism, it was… well, co-opted by capitalists. Darrow swiped it: he nicked it, he took the Monopoly money and ran. By the time Magie sued Darrow, he was rich. He eventually paid her $500—perhaps with a goldenrod bill?—to shut her up.

Theft, property deeds, hush money: It’s a fitting place to start any modern history of a city.

*

“Were you aware,” Tim Moore asks, “that the distinctive smell of the Underground is largely that of human skin dust?”

No? You weren’t? Very well—carry on, then.

Do Not Pass Go is an Everyman’s wanderings in a great metropolis: a string of anecdotes and traveling rants that pinball between bemusement and despair. Amongst it all is Moore, clad in tragically unhip clothing and with a prewar Monopoly set crammed into his backpack, which he takes out at generally inopportune moments (lunch at the Ritz, anyone?) to roll the dice and decide where he’s headed next.

His British version of the Monopoly board was created in 1935 by Victor Watson and Marjorie Phillips. After their employer Waddington’s purchased the UK rights from Parker Brothers, they explored London to decide what to replace the streets of Atlantic City with. Their choices are often inexplicable—some properties, like Vine Street, can hardly be said to exist. But that’s not the point. The Monopoly board gives an instantly recognizable geographical helix: The board’s layout is such a part of a culture’s DNA that it allows Moore to dispense with logical narrative formalities. Before you know it, you’re watching a vastly mustachioed Turkish con man on Leicester Square at midnight, working the “funny bike” scam:

[He] scratches two chalk lines 8 feet apart on the pavement before riding a small and slightly odd-looking bicycle between them, shouting as he does so that if anyone give him one pound and do this, he give them ten pound cash money. Then a lot of men—drunk men—queue up, pay up, saddle up and fall over. The equation I’d begun to dread was rewardingly invented: I was having a good time, and other people were getting hurt.

The Square, Moore points out, has always been the site of curious business ventures. In the early 1700s, one enterprising fellow set up a telescope, pointed it down at Temple Bar, and for a fee gave you a splendid view of executed prisoners, whose rotting heads were impaled on spikes. Later on, engraver William Woolett got into the habit of firing a cannon from his roof every time he finished a piece of art. Try pulling that stunt from your Williamsburg studio, and I’ll wish you and your defense attorney the best of luck.

London’s combination of anarchy and pomp brings out the best in Moore. He notes that Leicester Square later featured a statue of George I on horseback. This statue was buried twelve feet under a sort of amusement park ride—the owners of the plot, upon finding that they weren’t allowed to remove the statue, had hit upon this subterranean loophole. Then the statue was disinterred and stripped of its gilding. Then it had its limbs snapped off, and was covered in trash and dead cats. Then local children put a dunce cap, a pipe, and a mustache on George—and, for good measure, painted his horse in polka dots. Eventually his head was yanked off altogether, and the torso sold for scrap.

Later, visiting a courtroom on Bow Street—part of the Orange properties, just before Free Parking—Moore witnesses the aftermath of such hijinks, in the form of a late-night Eastern European reveler now contritely standing before a judge. A police officer had been trying to coax the fellow out of a tipped-over trash can, and the defendant’s English-as-a-second-language reply—now repeated in an ancient courtroom before a fully bewigged judge—is dutifully read from the police report by the court clerk: “Shit, shit, fuck it, shit, fucking, shitting, shit.”

Moore gives such characters full chaotic rein in his book. Out on Old Kent Road, we hear of “a huge black man unforgettably named Lord PooFun [who] hawked patent medicines labelled ‘African Herb Stuff.’” We also discover that on Oxford Street one Mr. Stanley Green spent decades wielding a sign reading LESS PASSION FROM LESS PROTEIN. Convinced that lentils dangerously increased libido, he distributed his jeremiac pamphlets at the unfathomably chosen price of 12p. Moore says Green died in 1993; perhaps, but I’m fairly sure I’ve seen him in San Francisco at the foot of Powell Street, with a hand-lettered screed commanding NO UNLAWFUL SEX.

If eccentrics, drunks, and drunk eccentrics are the unintentional heroes of Do Not Pass Go, its villains come in the form of architects and city planners. With some timely assistance from the Luftwaffe, they wipe out old buildings, replacing them with palpably inferior blocks—and they are of a blockish geometry, gen­erally. Modern architects at their worst are pathologically incapable of thinking ahead to what their buildings will look like when they are not new, when they are not pristine models basking under fluorescent office lighting. Rather than acquiring a warm patina, modern materials can rot hideously, in the civic engineering equivalent of a Damien Hirst sculpture. Or, as Moore notes out on Euston Road:

I looked across the plaza: you could just see how it would have looked in the architect’s model, little plastic families on little plastic benches, angular HO-gauge executives caught in stiff-legged midstride walking away from their Matchbox Ford Zodiacs. But in the cold light of a cold day it was scattered with people supremely ill at ease in their surroundings…. Around all them the marooned and forsaken sixties buildings were shedding grubby little mosaic tiles and weeping rust from panels like dreadnoughts in dry dock.

I suppose it’s an old complaint. In fact, I know it’s old complaint, as nineteenth-century London newspapers used to always have at least a few readers writing in to bemoan how some charmingly run-down centuries-old Soho coffeehouse was getting torn down to make way for yet another new Victorian monstrosity of brick and terra-cotta.

But people want their new stuff, and who can blame them? I want my new stuff, too. Moore would be the first to admit that commercial culture, with its shameless and eternal chase for money, often turns out in retrospect to be one of the great repositories of a city’s endearing eccentricities. I love that Piccadilly Circus used to be topped by a Scott Paper billboard of surgeons grimly bending over an operating table and proclaiming “…and the trouble began with harsh toilet tissue.” I love that in the original But-Wait-There’s-More offer, a van drove around Old Kent Road barking out to passers-by: “Buy one of my tins of foot ointment and I’ll pull out one of your teeth!” Or that the Lyons Corner House, a thirties restaurant chain whose dining rooms seated thousands of middle-class diners at once, eventually became such a mammoth enterprise—the Marble Arch branch alone had a staff of a thousand—that the company decided it needed a computer to crunch its numbers. Only, it being 1949, there weren’t any civilian computers in existence yet. So the Lyons R&D department built the first civilian computer in Britain. To put this in other terms: Imagine if the first PC was built by Howard Johnson’s.

Yet Moore senses something different about London’s business culture today: “Almost everywhere I was getting the slight sensation of corners being rounded off, of genuine idiosyncrasy giving way to contrived commercial wackiness.” But that’s what sells. And that’s the game, isn’t it? Buy and sell! Build as many hotels as possible! Collect rent! And then, when all but one is bankrupt… smile, sweep it all away into a box, and start the city over again.

*

It’s all a wind-up, of course: Maybe there never was a Monopoly board in Moore’s backpack when he visited Pentonville Prison (i.e. “go to Jail”); maybe he didn’t really answer a tart card from a King’s Cross phone booth in order to play Monopoly with a Brazilian transvestite; maybe he didn’t visit the streets in the order he says he did. Or maybe it’s all true. It hardly matters: This book, which appears to be all about a nut with a Monopoly board, is about neither. It is about a good-humored but very sober-minded writer carefully tracing the decay of his hometown. And he hammers it into your head before you even realize it, all because you were too busy pondering his trivial revelations like… oh, in Finnish Junior Monopoly, Jail is rendered as
a Lavatory.

The real distance being traveled by Do Not Pass Go is not that from Go to Mayfair: It is from 1935 to 2001. When the British edition of Monopoly was released, London was the world’s largest and most powerful metropolis, with a population of nine million. The city has been in slow decline ever since. The key item in Moore’s backpack as he traverses what remains is not the Monopoly board at all, but a file stuffed with old clippings and photographs.

Unmentioned in his book, and generally unknown now, is a fascinating 1935 volume by Noel Carrington titled This Man’s Father, which places side by side photographs and text of identical locations in a London neighborhood, to show what the passage of fifty years has wrought. It’s an elegiac work; but now the destructive Present of 1935 has itself become the lost Past of 1935—the exact same year that Moore happens to be lamenting. Bearing old photographs and business directories of the streets as Vic Watson and Marjorie Phillips saw them in 1935, and holding them up to the new streets before him, Moore can see what happened in the interim.

Take Piccadilly, that most brash and vital of London streets:

Past Egyptian Hall, now the nation’s tourist office but in an earlier incarnation an extraordinarily eccentric palace of entertainment where mountaineers recreated the ascent of Mont Blanc, and 800,000 Londoners filed in to see Napoleon’s coach. More of those irksome, dull and obscure commercial amalgamations—Salomon­ Smith Barney; HDP International; the Bond-villainesque Corporate Executive Board—in Edwardian blocks that once accommodated the National Sulphuric Acid Association, ladies’ blouse maker Rosa Kenard, Titanine Aeroplane Dope, and John Robertson & Son whisky merchants.

What Moore finds, on virtually every street, is that residents are gone altogether, replaced by faceless brass-plate multinationals with unsmiling receptionists manning the front desks. “Impersonal collective entities,” he notes. “Corporations, tourists, street associations. Its story was now told not in the first but the third person plural.” Central London, in other words, has gone from a dream-cityscape of Ben Katchor into a corporate nightmare of Tom Tomorrow.

Where did everyone go? How did we get to this forsaken place? Why, the same way we get everywhere these days… by car.

*

If Moore’s book shows you what happened to London, then Edward Platt’s Leadville (2001) shows you how it happened. Even as Vic Watson was drawing up the Monopoly board, Londoners were making a slow exodus out of the city center. “Everything and everybody is being rushed down and swept into one dusty arterial road of cheap mass production and standardised living,” J.B. Priestley observed
in 1933.

It had been obvious for decades that cars were going to change everything. As early as 1909, the City of London had commissioned one Colonel Hellard to study the creation of arterial roads out of the City; the report he filed in 1913 recommended using the open ground and farmland out by Wormwood Scrubs, an area known as Leadville, to build a vast avenue. The wheels of civil engineering grind slowly, but grind they do, and in the 1920s neighborhood farmers found themselves being evicted and their potato crops dug up by construction crews and left to rot. You won’t find any farmland today. What you will find is the A40 arterial road—Western Avenue. Lined along it are thousands of mock-Tudors, the first generation of suburban car-culture houses.

Aside from altering the landscape through roads, cars changed the form of houses themselves. Farmhouses often faced the fields—the logical focus of their watchfulness. Today, in the suburbs built where those farms once stood, new houses sniff out at the street with snout-like garages. Houses have been generally reorienting themselves over the past century. The
furniture of the living room is configured around the focal point of a television, where formerly the focus was the fireplace or the piano. We have forced air heating and forced traffic patterns: It is absurd for our chairs, or the houses they sit in, to still face the fireplace and the fields.

Still, even Leadville managed to hang on to its countrified feel for a little while. When Western Avenue was opened in 1927, the feeder roads and bridges hadn’t been finished yet; it had, one paper reported, “as little traffic as a country lane,” and was promptly dubbed “The Road to Nowhere.” It still is a road to nowhere today, but for the opposite reason. When Western Avenue was first surveyed, there were about 30,000 cars in Britain. By 1995 there were twenty-three million. Sometimes residents of Western Avenue can spend an hour stuck in traffic, staring helplessly at their home just feet away. But they would be foolish indeed to walk away from their cars. When the feeder routes were opened in 1929, the first pedestrian fatality occurred on Western Avenue just three days later. It has kept up an impressive tally ever since.

*

Edward Platt, a freelance journalist in London, had the vague notion in 1995 of interviewing the residents of this seminal architectural realization of a motorized world. But the first house he visited delivered a nasty shock: It was about to be demolished. So, in fact, were hundreds of other houses along Western Avenue. They were getting cleared to make way for—wait for it—another road. An overpass, this time. Residents were abandoning their condemned homes, whereupon Department of Transportation bailiffs, to discourage squatters, systematically and gleefully wrecked the interiors.

What Platt witnessed, to his disbelief, were the death throes of the neighborhood he had set out to write about. His visits into the emptied houses are like sneaking past POLICE—DO NOT CROSS tape to peek at the scene of a crime:

At 239 Western Avenue, the front door is ajar. Tentatively, I push it open, and step inside the house. The air is damp. Curled like an upside down question mark, a wire trails from an overhead light socket…. I climb the stairs. Holes have been driven through floorboards in each of the bedrooms, and the toilet has exploded; all that remains is the jagged stem, which cups a fetid pool of water. In the bath next door, there is human shit, and in the bedroom above the road, a carpet lies over a hole which has been driven through the floorboards; I step carefully around it. Underneath the window, I find several letters from the DSS, and amongst them, handwritten on a piece of dirty white tissue paper, a poem:

I WOZ ‘ERE, but now

I’ve gone, I’ve left

My name to CARRY ON,

Those who know me, know me well,

And those who don’t, can

GO TO HELL.

It is signed “SMUDGER.” I read it out loud and my voice echoes alarmingly in the empty house…. Flies circulate noiselessly around my head, and dust catches in my throat. I should not be here….

Indeed, nobody should be anywhere near the neighborhood at this point, and yet a surprising number of people hang on. Western Avenue is no ghetto, but those living on it appear to be the people that society has nudged aside: retirees, immigrants, and a smattering of going-nowhere-in-particular bohemians.

There is William, the Irish stoner photographer; his photos of naked women draped in pot plants probably tell you everything you need to know about him. There’s the Kurdish refugee who dislikes the noise and traffic so much that he wishes he was back in Iraq—and this is in 1995. There’s the crazy loner known to locals only as The Man, and plenty of others who simply click their doors shut in the writer’s face. But there are also the Greens, typical of the avenue’s well-meaning but somewhat put-upon retirees… except that there’s also their oddly formal and precise son, Robin, who at the age of forty-seven still lives in the house with them. An unemployed and possibly autistic city planner, Robin examines the grids and traffic patterns of his neighborhood with Spock-like logic and fascination; his room spills over with boxes of documents. He insists that the overpass scheme will not work—which seems a rather hopeless stance, as the project’s well underway when Platt’s interviewing him.

With each section of the book, another year passes and another stage in the neighborhood’s disintegration occurs. It is haunting to find houses where Platt was having living room conversations with residents, just pages before, suddenly left forlorn and wrecked. When he goes back to visit the Greens’ house, now vandalized, he finds the floorboards torn away, “revealing the foundations which divide the house into a series of shallow pits. The house is no more than a geometrical puzzle, a series of interlocking boxes; with its pretensions to being worthy of affection destroyed.”

Squatters move into the unloved and vacated homes, and there drown in ennui, mud, and four-foot high drifts of beer cans. Occasionally they roust themselves to protest against the system, man, and spray-paint witty repartee like MERRY XMAS CUNT and BOLLOX TO YA! to greet the DOT workers. When a phalanx of police and bailiffs show up at 69 Western Avenue to evict the squatters and commence wrecking, the squatters mess with the fuzz by asking if they can wreck the house. To the drunken accompaniment of a banjo, one explains, “We got the workmen out of the house and then started lobbing bricks. The bailiffs did not know what to make of it.”

By the end, even the squatters are gone, leaving only their empty bottles and hexes. Back at the cleared site where the Green house stood, Platt finds an object on the gate post: “a doll’s head with flowing brown hair and a cocktail of blood and dirt smeared on its mouth—a voodoo icon…”

*

Leadville captures the urban equivalent of the four seasons: construction, habitation, decay, destruction. While the causes of the latter seasons can be hard to trace, both Moore and Platt lay the construction of automotive cities like Leadville squarely at the feet of Modernism. In Leadville the focus is upon Le Corbusier, while Moore picks the oddball Harold Clunn, but the upshot is the same: New times demanded new cities. “The problem of the house is the problem of the epoch,” Le Corbusier warned, and Clunn concurred. It was a machine age of reinforced concrete, metal, and glass, and with it an approaching tidal wave of car traffic: For the city to survive, they argued, the old sentimental forms and building materials needed to be thrown out.

America’s embrace of cars led the way; as Moore points out, in “1921 one in fourteen Americans were car owners; the comparable British ratio was one in 168.” Europeans thought they’d be left in
the dust. Le Corbusier’s manifestoes shouted warnings in all caps: “THE AMERICANS OVERWHELM WITH THEIR CALCULATIONS OUR EXPIRING ARCHITECTURE.” Progress would come in the wholesale razing of old neighborhoods, and never you mind about the people in the way. Clunn’s 1934 The Face of London proposed demolishing Oxford Circus—demolishing most of what we’d recognize as old London, in fact—to create an Americanized grid of streets and highways. The implied solution always seemed to be the same: the sort of brutalist architecture that values present over the past, theory over practice, cold over warm, machine over man.

Consider the era, and then consider this penchant for big machines and for pushing little people around. You will not be shocked to hear that, amidst his proposals to demolish Soho for a new highway, Clunn also complains about how “British homes are being appropriated and their businesses snowed under by…”… by… oh, but surely you knew this was coming, didn’t you?…

“…by the Jews.”

*

And yet, when it all goes wrong, somehow no one is to blame. For it does indeed all go wrong, and it goes wrong all the time. It has gone wrong all over London, as Do Not Pass Go clearly shows. If Moore’s testimony is Exhibit A, then Platt’s is an equally appalling Exhibit B. The shocking dénouement of Leadville is that the enigmatic Robin Green, with his roomful of documents, was right all along: The overpass is unworkable. The project gets cancelled, and 182 houses and twenty-eight businesses have been demolished for no reason whatsoever, leaving nothing but a weedy and rubbish-strewn wasteland where a neighborhood once stood—all for another road to nowhere.

When Platt interviews the city planners in the aftermath of this collapse, he is flabbergasted to find that he cannot get them to express an iota of admission of error or personal involvement in the whole matter. They hardly seem involved with their own decisions; it is as if they are all having an out-of-body experience:

“You see, a lot of the decisions were taken by ministers taking into account the policies of
the day and the situations of the day,” resumes Mr. Mellors. “And you could say none of those decisions were ever wrong—it’s just the way it’s all worked out, we’ve ended up in a situation which I don’t think anyone could ever foresee. It’s an unfortunate situation.”

Mr. Mellors has a strange habit of presenting everything in the passive voice: it is almost as if he believes the “unfortunate situation” had evolved without his active participation…. it was Mr Mellors who managed the demolition of the houses, and yet now Mr Mellors denies all responsibility for his actions, for he was merely obeying instructions.

But it all makes sense, really. Traffic has become the great third person of our time: the shapeless, inefficient, unblameable mass behind which a great many first persons hide. It is strangling us: not me, or you, or you over there in the back. We go to city council hearings and blame the excess of motorists, complain about the lack of parking and the bottlenecks. And then, afterwards, we drive home in our cars.

Yet both Moore and Platt’s books are defiantly first-person pedestrian narratives. Neither has been picked up for a U.S. edition, because it’s all too easy for an American publisher to see them as purely local stories. Easy, but wrong. Our cities were rebuilt for traffic, and in Moore’s London is the story of nearly every modern city. Those of us who are the metal Scotch Terriers and Old Boots of the world, making our way street by street down the board—toc toc toc—we’ve seen the changes. The names of the streets are different for every country. But the setup of the board and the rules of the game are the same everywhere.

We all live in Leadville now.

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