Vision 2021: Talking ’bout my regeneration

THE spontaneous nationwide celebrations that erupted when the microwave timer pinged on Boris Johnson’s oven-ready European deal inevitably eclipsed news of another signal example of his government’s foresight and munificence.

I am referring, of course, to its decision to splurge a stonking £9,605,854 on revitalising the Old Kent Road, the ancient artery that, from Roman times till Brexit, connected London to the continent.

The bearer of this seasonal gift was Robert Jenrick, Communities Secretary, who earlier this year confessed to “apparent bias” in having reversed a planning decision against Tory donor and erstwhile pornographer Richard Desmond.

Dodgy Bob’s intervention, involving a housing development in the East End, saved the former Daily Express and Asian Babes publisher an estimated £45 million in tax.

But enough of that! As the good folk of the Old Kent Road like to say, this is a moment to look forwards and not backwards.

As Ibrahim Adewusi of the Old Kent Road mosque put it: “We’re part of a road that leads from Westminster to Europe.” Easy, Ibrahim! That could sound a bit remoany.

In any event, the dosh now coming Old Kent Road’s way – or maybe not – is part of a package of handouts to high streets around the country to help them overcome the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

Cynics gripe that the same cash was first promised in 2018, long before the bug struck, while the government insists the handout represents a “key milestone” for its “levelling-up agenda”.

If you’re going to level up, you might as well start with the Old Kent Road, immortalised as the cheapest property on the Monopoly board and described by the prestigious Financial Times as London’s “last gentrification frontier”.

Although it’s barely a 10-minute ministerial limousine drive from Parliament, Jenrick and chums have clearly never been there. Otherwise they would know that it’s not a bloody high street! It’s much more than that.

Chaucer’s pilgrims once rode down the three-mile thoroughfare between the Elephant and Castle and New Cross Gate and victorious knights on their way from Agincourt once rode back up it.

It was later immortalised by Albert Chevalier, the Cockney Costermonger, in his 1891 song “Wot Cher! Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road”, subsequently popularised by Shirley Temple.

But in recent years, southeast London’s erstwhile Appian Way has come to resemble its Via Dolorosa, courtesy of the developers and the planners.

Exhibit 1: Within living memory, the Old Kent Road had a pub on every corner, some of them dating back to medieval times. A half pint in every one of them would have left you legless. These days, there are just two left.

The beating heart of Cockney south London was ripped out to make way for warehouse megastores. If they hadn’t also filled in the nearby Surrey Canal, in order to widen the road at Canal Bridge, this bit of London might now be another Little Venice.

If you were busy preparing your Covid-safe Christmas dinner, you might have missed the latest iteration of the Old Kent Road action plan, published in December under the title: Not any old road.

“Old Kent Road will be a place where communities and families can flourish; a safe place to grow up and to grow old in. It will continue its historic role as a vital artery connecting the commerce and culture of one of the world’s great cities to Europe,” it says. Seriously?

We’ve been here before. When the North Peckham Civic Centre opened at Canal Bridge in 1966 it promised to fill “a void in the local community by providing live entertainment”. I should know. I once starred there as the homeless tramp in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker.

The building is now occupied by the Everlasting Arms Ministry Pentecostal Church, an inter-denominational Christian ministry devoted to deliverance, holiness, preaching of the word and setting the captive free. Chaucer would have got it.

The latest action plan proposes an innovative approach “because the unique conditions and character of Old Kent Road provide an important opportunity to address the challenges faced across London when it comes to accommodating growth in homes, jobs and social infrastructure…blah blah blah.”

Additionally: “Old Kent Road is one of the few places in central London that really can deliver innovative solutions to these challenges.” What?

Happily, organic London always manages to see off the planners. The cracks they create in the city’s fabric are rapidly filled.

The gor’ blimey, cockney Old Kent Road may be a distant memory. But the present one has a whole new community of Latinos, Chinese, Poles, Greeks, Nigerians and West Indians. And where else would you find a fresh bourek on Boxing Day?

A tale for Christmas: murder, masons and the mafia

EARLY on the morning of 18 June 1982, a young postal clerk headed for work at the nearby Daily Express spied a body hanging by the neck from scaffolding beneath an arch of Blackfriars Bridge.

The corpse turned out to be that of Roberto Calvi, a 62-year-old Italian financier known as “God’s Banker” for his close financial ties to the Vatican. The pockets of his hand-made suit were stuffed with wads of cash and weighed down with bricks.

Even by London standards, it doesn’t get much more noir than that. But wait. There’s more to this saga, which has yet to be completely resolved almost four decades on.

The plot sounds like it was written by a Hammer Horror scriptwriter on speed, involving as it does skulduggery in the Holy See, sinister Masonic organisations, the mafia, powerful neo-fascists and even hints of black magic.

The discovery of Calvi’s body had to compete in the news of the day with the aftermath of the Falklands War. Argentine forces had surrendered to the Brits only four days earlier. There were other less fortuitous connections between the Calvi affair, Argentina and Thatcher’s war that the celebrating British public and headline writers missed at the time.

But more of that later. First the bare facts.

The day before his death, Calvi had been formally removed from his post as chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, Italy’s biggest private bank whose main shareholder was the Vatican.

He was in the process of appealing a four-year jail sentence on charges of raising massive unsecured loans, shipping illicit funds out of Italy and lending to dubious associates in Italy and abroad. The bank collapsed soon after.

Calvi had gone on the run a week before his death, using a fake passport to make his way to London on a private jet, via Venice.

So how did he end up hanging under a London bridge? And why Blackfriars, on the somewhat soulless eastern fringe of the Thames Embankment?

Now, this is where it gets really creepy. Calvi was a member of the underground Italian masonic lodge, Propaganda Due – P2. Its grandmaster was Licio Gelli, who still cleaved to the ideology he had embraced as one of Mussolini’s early fascist volunteers. Calvi’s arrest had come after documents on the covert P2 were uncovered in a raid on Gelli’s villa.

When the well-connected lads at P2 weren’t busy rolling up their trouser legs, they were involved in ultra-right politics at home and abroad and in helping out their establishment brethren. And the moniker they gave themselves was the frati neri – The Black Friars!

You don’t have to be Dan Brown to conclude that the brothers had a role in Calvi’s death, maybe to prevent him coughing up the lodge’s secrets to the police and to dissuade others with their symbolic masonic warning.

The unimaginative City of London Police nevertheless decided it was a suicide and the coroner’s court agreed. However, at a second hearing the following year a jury recorded an open verdict.

The italians dug up Calvi in 1998 and forensic evidence pointed to foul play. The Thames tide had been out when the body was found but at high tide someone in a boat could have reached the scaffolding he was hanged from.

The London police eventually followed up in 2003 by opening a murder inquiry. They discovered Calvi had been staying in Chelsea in the days before his death at a flat that had been used by playboy and drug-dealer Sergio Vaccari.

The theory emerged that Vaccari had hired the boat on which Calvi was strangled on behalf of the mafia. We’ll never know for sure. Three months after Calvi’s body was spotted, Vaccari was found murdered, lying in a pool of blood in his flat in Holland Park with multiple stab wounds.

In 2005, five suspects went on trial in Italy, including Calvi’s former bodyguard. They were all cleared. Gelli died in 2015, six years after a case against him for plotting Calvi’s murder was dropped.

The old fascist, and Calvi’s erstwhile Venerable Master, had spent many of his fugitive years in Argentina. He was close to the ageing nationalist president Juan Peron and to a key adviser, Jose Lopez Vega, a rumoured black magician and member of the P2 lodge.

Gelli’s influence extended to the military dictatorship that replaced the Peron dynasty. Among its leaders were P2 members. Argentina had got hold of French Exocet missiles used in the Falklands war thanks to an illicit credit paid though Calvi’s Banco Ambrosiano.

In 1987, 13 years after Peron’s death, the late president’s tomb in Buenos Aires was raided and his hands were removed. A black magic rite? Or maybe another sinister message from the P2?

From Blackfriars to Buenos Aires. Come on Hammer Horror! Even you couldn’t make it up!

Football’s finest: Come on you Lions!

ONE drawback of the relaxation of a ban on public attendance at football matches is that Millwall fans may soon be headed to a stadium near you.

Host teams will be anticipating the arrival of the visitors with the same enthusiasm with which Anglo-Saxon monks once looked forward to the Vikings popping round.

For, by past reputation at least, Millwall fans are the gold standard, the alpha and omega, the nec plus ultra of English football hooliganism. They are Betar’s La Familia crew, The Boca Juniors ultras and Dinamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys all rolled into one.

Returning to the Den for the first time since the Covid lockdown, a diminished home crowd of 2,000 lived up to the abrasive reputation today by booing their own team. The players’ offense was to have got down on one knee in support of Black Lives Matter.

The Football Association put out a statement supporting players who “wish to take a stand against discrimination in a respectful manner” and strongly condemned the behaviour of any spectators that actively voice their opposition to such activities.

Give yourself a break, FA. That’s like a red rag to a bull for a team whose motto is: “No one likes us, we don’t care.”

Former Notts Forest player Greg Halford put the incident down to typical Millwall behaviour. “Every time I’ve played there I’ve heard a form of racist abuse.”

Up to a point, Greg. The reality is that Millwall fans have a reputation for being equal opportunity abusers. They will target any minority group or rival team and, if none are available, they just fight among themselves.

A few years back, 10 fans were arrested in an intra-Millwall barney at a Cup match at Wembley, ostensibly started when a Millwall child was pushed over by a Millwall drunk.

But how did the team, or rather its fans, get such a bad reputation, is it truly deserved, and what the hell do I care anyway?

Well, on the last point, you could say I had no choice. Brought up a few hundred yards from the Old Den in Cold Blow Lane, I am tribally Millwall even if I haven’t been to a game for years. They’re still my local team, since moving just up the road to the New Den in Bermondsey in 1993.

An allegiance to the Millwall Lions is somehow built into the fabric of the neighbourhood and you can’t get away from it, however much you might want to.

If clubs can be said to have a personality, then Millwall’s is held to be aggressive, slightly paranoid, and pessimistic verging on the psychopathic.

The rising chant of Milllllwaaaaaallllllllll…., designed to curdle the blood of the opposition, is more like a pagan battle cry than a football chant.

And whereas fans of neighbouring arch-rival Charlton will simper over how well their boys played in a match they just lost 10-nil, Millwall will denounce their own winning goal-scorer as “shit” for failing to double it.

The hooliganism heyday was in the late sixties and seventies, when the fandom’s sharp-dressers – more mod than rocker – would get kitted out in the Tower Bridge Road before launching on the weekly mayhem.

These days they may be a bit more subdued but their reputation goes before them. Whenever some aggro erupts on the South London streets, you can bet there’s a Lions’ fan involved.

That’s not always a bad thing. When jihadist terrorists attacked London Bridge and Borough market in 2017, fan Roy Larner confronted the knife-wielding attackers with: “Fuck, you! I’m Millwall!” (You can still buy the T-shirt).

The macho image was somewhat dented when another Millwall fan, a self-appointed guardian of London’s statues from Black Lives Matter protestors, had to be rescued from the clutches of an angry crowd by a BLM activist.

None of the negative vibes could be felt this morning as the New Den prepared to welcome back fans. Two old codgers – no doubt right tearaways in the old days – were enjoying an early cuppa on the sun-kissed terrace of Kennedy’s caff.

They looked as if they didn’t have a care in the world. And this afternoon’s home game result – Millwall 0 Derby 1 – must have been a bonus to their instinctive pessimism.