Friday, August 1, 2008

Geoffrey Fletcher

A recent post on I Like alerted me to the documentary film The London Nobody Knows, in which James Mason guides us through some of the less regarded parts of 1960s London – abandoned theatres, street markets, pubs, vacant lots, public toilets (‘All men are equal in the eyes of a lavatory attendant’), Salvation Army hostels, and, finally, the dark corners occupied by the capital’s meths-drinking rough sleepers. It’s an evocative and moving film, which takes us on a journey, not just a geographical journey across London but also a journey from a warm nostalgia for old music halls to a hard-hitting account of life ‘down among the meths men’.Down Among The Meths Men is the title of one of the books by the writer and illustrator Geoffrey Fletcher on which the film is based. Geoffrey Fletcher (1923–2004) drew prolifically, training at the Slade and winning a scholarship of the British School in Rome. He illustrated many books written by other writers, wrote and illustrated a column in the Daily Telegraph through the 1960s and beyond, and gathered many of his drawings and descriptions into a series of books about neglected aspects of the capital. Books such as The London Nobody Knows, London’s River, Pearly Kingdom, London Overlooked and, most harrowingly, Down Among The Meths Men provide a unique view of bits of London – pubs, shops, markets, wharves, churchyards, catacombs – many of which are no longer there.

These books are all illustrated with Fletcher’s drawings, which look like rapid sketches done on the spot, but which manage to carry in their calligraphic scribbles and high-speed shading the essence of the people and places they portray. The books that contain these drawings form an absorbing guide to what has gone from the capital over the last 40 years. More than this, they are an exercise in how to see, in grubbing around in corners, in looking up, in exploring alleys, in gaining the confidence of knowledgeable locals, in walking, looking, and thinking at the same time.
What Fletcher thought about and drew included the small things – beer pumps, street lights, urinals, railings, gravestones - as well as the grand ones. He celebrated alleys and back streets and unfashionable areas of London. He saw that neglected or overlooked things are important, that buildings are interesting because of the people who built them and use them, and that the more you look the more you see. For continual revelations about London, thank you Geoffrey Fletcher.


Peter Ashley said...

Thankyou for that insight into Mr.Fletcher. His 'The London Nobody Knows' introduced me to the big gas lamp in Carting Lane at the back of the Savoy, lit by excess gas from Bazalgette's sewers. The fuel is probably not from the sewers now, but it still glows greenly nevertheless.

Philip Wilkinson said...

I wish I'd discovered Geoffrey Fletcher when I lived in London, but better late than never. Although so much of Fletcher's London has gone, reading him still gets one close to the soul of the place. Mind you, I wasn't quite prepared for the unblinking accounts of people on Skid Row in Down Among the Meths Men: to be read when one's feeling strong.

Gute Luft said...

I have just recently begun an obsession with Fletcher's work and after reading Down Amoung the Meths Men it has completely changed my view of his work. Now looking back at his other books like Geoffrey Fletcher's London and The London Nobody Knows and particularitly ones like Portraits of London he seems a bit quirky being interested in old stuff and that but with Down Amoung the Meths Men he describes this group of infested and infected people in the most sorry and degrading state imaginable who he follows, as if its so ordinary, and in a way by the end of the book you begin to think it is. It just really seems to expose so much more about how he thought and behaved its so personal in comparison to a chapter in another of his books on gas lamps. I still love reading about architectural oddities like that but now I want to know more and more about these strange people who could only have exhisted in a completely different era and how a posh art student (well I assume poshish) came to be wandering around London amoung shit and vomit stained ruins seeking out the most depraved inhabitants of London.

Anonymous said...

I like reading stuff on the oddities of London, another good location is knowledge of London
So many good things to visit.

Rambunctious Twins said...

I too, love Geoffrey Fletcher's quirky guides to London town; his art work and draughtsmanship are excellent, his humour and splendid grumpiness a joy to read on the page. One thing I do when reading his many books is to open up Google Maps for the street views of the places he illustrated so vividly a generation or more ago. Sad that so much as gone, but there's a lot remaining and even the new add something.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you. Yes, reading the books with Google Maps open is a good idea. I must try it.