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I don’t know​ if the afterlife experience will fall on us as a broken-backed trudge across an eternity of unyielding stones or a short-breathed descent into a confusion of hot tunnels (with distant rumours of rushing water). Or if the coming limbo will sentence the dead to a cinema purgatorio of guilty memories with no beginning and no end; a microclimate of mephitic fumes so pernicious that tired eyes struggle to form a pattern from writhing shapes on a dirty sheet. But whatever manifests when the hour comes – perhaps all of the above in a simultaneous implosion of apocalyptic payback – it will feel very much like being shipwrecked on the Tempest island of the Elephant and Castle; another chunk of London real estate serially overwhelmed by enlightened development.

Reaching the end of my biblical allocation of years brought on something more troubling than Nick Cave’s midlife mirror interrogation, his 20,000 Days on Earth. Hurtling to oblivion around the chicanes of the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre is not existential Brighton with Kylie Minogue and Ray Winstone onboard. For survivors of a century that witnessed the birth and death of both cinema and automobile cultures, the only reliable measure of time is the partial recall of films we have experienced. And it’s not where we were when we heard about the assassination of Jack Kennedy, but what we were watching: television. Home alone, or straining the neck to look at a wall-mounted set in a half-empty restaurant, we were in thrall to waveringly remote prints of reality. Meanwhile, on the same afternoon, the nominated patsy/marksman, Lee Harvey Oswald, who looked nothing like the potential presidential assassins played by Frank Sinatra (in Suddenly) or Laurence Harvey (in The Manchurian Candidate), slid ticketless into the Texas Theatre in Dallas, for a double bill that would otherwise have drifted beyond record: Cry of Battle, set in the Philippines, and War is Hell!, a Korean War quickie narrated by the much decorated Audie Murphy. Oswald fixed his time and period just as the bank robber John Dillinger confirmed both the status of the FBI and the date, 22 July 1934, by getting himself shot to pieces emerging from the Biograph in Chicago, after watching Clark Gable play an amiable gangster in Manhattan Melodrama.

While trying to ignore my seventieth birthday I was offered an unexpected gift, which was also a challenge: the chance to nominate seventy films that would be shown in orthodox and unorthodox venues across London. I didn’t want to play the listing game of best or worst or personal favourite. And it didn’t work, in Dillinger fashion, to isolate one film for every year of my life; the big clusters came in the 1960s and there were plenty of desert epochs during which I saw practically nothing. I scanned my published books, in reverse order, and assembled a catalogue of films referenced. I wrote brief notes on all of them, realising that there were unexpected connections and overlaps. The list factored an accidental non-linear novel, which was also a reckoning of my engagement with London, the city where I have spent my working life. Expeditions to reach the cinemas were as memorable as the films themselves. Being among random gatherings in Tooting or Streatham or South Kensington was a valid indoctrination into a confederacy of time-wasters, sexual predators, school dodgers and humans attempting to suspend the creep of mortality for a couple of hours.

Screenings ran from July 2013 to June 2014 and were nearing their conclusion when I travelled to the Elephant. Audiences responded to these drop-in shows in ways I could never have predicted. The rarely seen Vulcano, a film directed by William Dieterle in a Hollywood version of Italian neo-realism, achieved a lively, sell-out crowd, many of whom were around my own age and some of whom lived on the barren volcanic island invaded by the original film crew. Folk memories of the Roman diva Anna Magnani, who set up the production as a spoiler against Stromboli (which her former lover, Roberto Rossellini, was shooting on a neighbouring rock with Ingrid Bergman), were challenged. The screening at the Italian Cultural Institute, attended by Muriel Walker, who had been part of the production, and who brought a spellbinding sense of witness, confirmed an episode that was vaguely remembered but legendary.

Soon afterwards, the presentation of Antonioni’s Il Grido above a hip pizza house next to the Olympic Park had to be cancelled when not a single ticket was subscribed. I’m a strong believer in running the advertised programme, even to an empty room. In this case, a film saturated in the melancholy of the Po Valley, a masterpiece of trudging between river and road, of colonising industries and the poetry of place, was strategically positioned beside the rebranded River Lea. I loved the idea of questioning the CGI fables of the promoters of the botched utopia of Stratford with a 1957 pilgrimage from a parallel universe. Our local filmmakers would have to respond. It didn’t happen. The current cinema of the disputed riverbank is an animation contrived from egotistical doodles by squads of professional taggers and spray-can bandits. I watched a young man directing, with all the panache of a cadet Pasolini, his crew of despoilers, as they whitewashed the bricks for his latest intervention: a naked male slumped on a bench, Minotaur’s head superimposed, a hank of meat dripping from his paw. TIME TO REMEMBER was the capitalised surtitle.

A chance meeting between the ever-present culture broker Gareth Evans and the independent filmmaker William Raban had resulted in an afternoon programme at the London College of Communication, in the slipstream of the Elephant and Castle. This dark-glazed institution sat foursquare in its post-architectural dullness across from a redundant shopping centre that looked like an extermination facility for asylum seekers. It felt good to return to this territory, not too far from Brixton, where I started as a film student in 1962. Experiencing the Northern Line again, the animal heat of those tiled tunnels, revived the London-specific mystery of my early attempts to track down reforgotten films. What I appreciated, as I tried to navigate the right Morlock tunnel, the least unreliable lift, was that the black hole at the epicentre of this vortex of urban restlessness was a necropolis to the age of cinema. The votive spectre, sentimentalised, inflated, patched into every available blank space, was Charles Spencer Chaplin: ‘London’s world famous star’. Child vagrant. Global-franchise tramp. Swiss domiciled millionaire guardian of his own archive. Author of a myth-making autobiography exploiting the nexus of these streets. The fable of Chaplin’s heroic ascent from the gutter offered a template to future developers reaching for the stars with their mirrored towers.

Hunkered down close to the protection of a deep blue wall, beneath a ledge of feral pigeons, are the usual tables with plastic bowls of fruit at £1 a throw. The single gold coin is the dominant unit of exchange; brown tokens are trodden into tarmac like cigarette stubs or used gum. The blue wall carries a CORONET sign as a reminder of the building’s history. The ABC Cinema (as it was originally called) opened in 1932 as a 2000-seat Art Deco conversion of the former Elephant and Castle Theatre. A theatre that boasted of performances by Chaplin, the definitive child of the streets. The humble traffic island, in the years between the two world wars, was a necklace of pleasure palaces; the most spectacular being the Trocadero, a 3500-seater designed by George Coles and featuring the largest Wurlitzer organ in Europe. The Elephant was universally acknowledged as ‘the Piccadilly Circus of South London’ and stood at the heart of a satellite belt of 42 active cinemas.

Beside the Coronet, now a ‘multi-media nightclub’ eager to host ‘corporate and private parties’, is a dim drinking hole named after Chaplin. A hand-scrawled card with a speculative apostrophe warns patrons that the ‘Gent’s cubicle is out of order.’ Afternoon topers go at it quietly, husbanding privileged pints. Next door, in the restored club, it’s all plastic: ‘We do not serve glass on the premises.’ You are invited to read and absorb a précis of Chaplin’s long career before stepping through the door. You might be tested on your heritage credentials before you are allowed to order a drink.

Crowning this termite island, decorated with an inflated pink elephant like a permanent headbanging hangover, is a posthumous mall confirming a very palpable order of execution. A creaking escalator takes unsuspecting visitors to the London Palace Bingo Club, where, behind secure doors, a battery farm of hungry machines flicker and spit over an epilepsy-inducing swirl of disconnected circles in the well-trodden carpet. Those who make it back to the lower level are offered the chance to slump into a pair of gently trembling leatherette recliners: £1 for five minutes. The only taker, head moving from side to side, as if experiencing CinemaScope for the first time, has fallen asleep. An optimistic venture beyond the chairs is offering ‘Affordable Polish Meals for Everyone’. And there’s the optional thrill of a fine-yourself chase in a little red car. ‘You’ve been caught on camera – Your photo for £1.’

It’s time to leave the unbroken set with its traces of blitz and blight, workhouse and limelight, and to present myself for the screening at the London College of Communication. Films that failed to find a niche elsewhere had been rounded up for an eccentric triple bill: the Mexican surrealism of Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie by John Cassavetes, and Too Hot to Handle, which features a couple of location shots of Jayne Mansfield teetering across the road from Lambeth Palace. When I reached the theatre, having passed through the automated barriers and security checks that allowed the atrium to conform to the generic paranoia of airports and Docklands offices, I realised that we were offering pretty much one film for each member of the audience. In my own remote student days, the chance to catch up with a Buñuel of this vintage would have packed out a hall of hard chairs. The Cassavetes and the Soho quickie would have been searched out by enthusiasts happy to make a complicated trip across London, and to use the journey as preparation for the discussions that would follow. The internet has put paid to all that. When everything is out there to be sampled, without having to endure the dystopian theme park of the Elephant, then that is what we choose to do: sample. Snack. Tweak. More choice is no choice. Mindless submersion instead of steady swimming towards a solid point of reference.

The audience for this special matinee consisted of three people implicated in the project and one freelance viewer. The students were all outside in the sunlight, gifting curls of smoke to the hazy fret of a spectacular roundabout. They dragged and hacked with considerable style. Some punctuated speedy iPhone monologues with leaks of blue air like cones of exhaust fumes. Others posed, prop cigarettes dangling from limp hands. None had the slightest inclination to step inside. Gareth Evans, unofficial master of ceremonies, delivered his impassioned address. He spoke of cinema ‘not as a passing interest, but a passing on of interests, a baton relay in the long race of collective sight’. The London College of Communication event became an obituary for a certain kind of communal engagement, for the conceit of a life measured out in films seen and remembered. Then, in just the way that spirits lift as survivors step into the fresh air after the hushed claustrophobia of a crematorium, our knot of heretic film fanatics, job done, experienced that epiphany of release, back into the matter of London. And every one of them decided, quite independently, to walk home.

A few months later, during a research trip to Swansea, I found that the gallery with the paintings I wanted to inspect was closed to the public for an indefinite period, hidden away behind a tall fence decorated with blow-ups of highlights we were denied. As compensation, I decided to slip through a side door, close to the puddled alley leading to Salubrious Passage, and up an improved version of the Elephant and Castle escalator. The least worst movie option, on the day of the vote on Scottish independence, seemed to be The Riot Club. My companion drew my attention to an attendant hauling a gurney loaded with transparent sacks of popcorn. They looked like body bags for extraterrestrials who had broken down into lumps of golden grain. For a £1.50 supplement it was possible to upgrade to VIP seating – deep leather thrones, with padded headrests and apertures in which to park your drinks. I was reminded of the massage chairs in the Elephant mall. Or the fantasy of turning left as you enter the aircraft. Here was a premature in-flight movie with Dolby sound. Nothing could be more disorientating than watching, among well-scattered strangers, on a damp afternoon when the national media outlets were hyperventilating about the rapidly fading possibility of divorce from Scotland, a clunkily signalled pantomime, half in love with what it satirised, about the transmutation of Oxford privilege into Tory politics. Local concern was focused on the death of Sonia Powell, a woman of about my age, who was trapped, after a suspected heart attack, in a logjam of ambulances outside Morriston Hospital. Nine vehicles had stalled in an improvised cab-rank because there were no free beds. That morning, I’d witnessed Andrew Marr wondering aloud if English politicians would ‘welsh’ on their Scottish promises.

The three girls in front of us, exam results achieved, were weighing up, in very sensible terms, their academic futures. They had already decided against Oxford, but were curious enough to see what the filmmakers had made of Laura Wade’s originating play, Posh. Not much, in truth, beyond a parade of entitled Etonian cheekbones, fancy dress and honeyed limestone. Like an episode of Inspector Morse pared down to a single subplot and denied a decent allocation of corpses. The small audience was well behaved and undisturbed by alien braying from cartoon stereotypes. Returning to ground level, like arriving in Heathrow from Cork on one of those days when customs operatives are in dispute, we strolled unmolested into the Swansea twilight. To the polite solicitations of professional drinkers gathering themselves in clubland doorways for a long night. Cinema-going, that temporary suspension of reality, was much the same in a comfortable multi-screen mall as in the bunkers and narrowboats of my London curation. The transaction didn’t make economic sense, but there are seven people in every city waiting for the lights to go down.

Then we were back at the Elephant and Castle, looking out for a building that preserved the lineaments of harsh Victorian charity. Chaplin and his half-brother Sydney had been lodged in the Lambeth Workhouse with their mother, Hannah, before she was relocated to Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum in Surrey, where her inclination to launch into compulsive hymn singing was countered by a regime of ice-cold baths. Part of the workhouse was now the Cinema Museum. My companion, Anna Sinclair, was due to introduce a double bill of Henry Hathaway’s Niagara and Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac, films illuminated by the best of bad girls, Marilyn Monroe and Françoise Dorléac. If the Ambulance Service was in trouble in Wales, reduced to issuing ‘sincere condolences’ after the latest catastrophe, it appeared to have given up altogether in Kennington. A brave procession of the halt and lame were dragging themselves, limping or shuffling on Zimmer frames, towards the brightly lit part of the hospital. Or we thought it was a hospital, until we discovered that this was the audience – and a good one – for the movies. It didn’t matter too much what was shown or who was talking it up, film-going was a minority faith. Support was offered to the custodians of an unfashionable theology. But cultural memory does matter and it is important to sustain small reservations where salvaged traces are displayed and admired. I listened to an obituary tribute to Lord Attenborough, during which the commentator told his radio audience that the much lamented polymath was ‘the first man to come from acting to directing’. Thereby erasing at a stroke D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier. To say nothing of Chaplin. But, as Gareth Evans told the faithful few at the London College of Communication, performance spaces kindly disposed towards historic films were disappearing fast in the swinish rush to inflate more unaffordable flats and vanity projects hidden in holes that improve the image of construction. Evans spoke of the loss of the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, marked by a terminal screening of Carol Reed’s romance of ruins, The Third Man. He lamented the threatened loss of Bloomsbury’s Horse Hospital. And the final closure of a comprehensively stocked film shop as part of the upgrading of Broadway Market in Hackney; collateral damage in the street’s conversion into a copycat Notting Hill bohemia of retro caves, barista coffee and artisanal wholemeal bread baked by downsizing bankers. ‘Capital loathes the old,’ Evans said, ‘for anchoring us in the reality of the lived.’ As we swerved and dodged through the potent clutter of the Cinema Museum, all that rescued signage, all that period-specific authenticity, the impressive figure of Melvyn Bragg, who had been shooting some high-toned television against this picturesque backdrop, swept out to his waiting Mercedes.

Nobody in the convalescent audience heard much of the introduction, but they waited patiently and gave this night’s films, as they would all others, the respect they deserved. A map could be produced, I’m sure, to feature all the lost churches and non-conformist congregations of this area. Some of these became cinemas. The Ideal on Lambeth Road, a Methodist chapel, was converted by the Rev. Thomas Tiplady in 1928 for screenings dedicated to ‘Cinema Evangelism’. The faces of the gathered few at the former Lambeth Workhouse shone with the conviction of true believers schooled to accept the occasional misconceived or inadequate sermon as the price for a special brand of togetherness. They were the last of their kind.

A guided tour of the Cinema Museum is the only leisure activity down here that doesn’t cost £1. A tenner for the 2 p.m. session is money well spent. Wanting to take a closer look at this repository dedicated to ‘the history of cinema and picture going’, I walked again through the exclusion zone around the future towers of the regenerated Elephant and Castle. ‘We’re committed to a cleaner city’ read a sign barely visible through the construction dust. An image-defaced wooden fence excused itself as ‘the mark of responsible forestry’. When language is so twisted, doubled back to mean its opposite, it’s a relief to listen to the introductory remarks of the Cinema Museum’s Martin Humphries. He swiftly redirects a pair of poverty tourists who want to experience the frisson of the workhouse and signs in the seven righteous persons who are up for a dose of bracing cinema evangelism.

The museum collection was assembled for ‘beer money’ in the 1970s, when cinemas were being demolished for their land value. Faded and frequently forgotten silent-screen stars in their camp shrines, the secular saints and dignified whores of an ecstatic religion, are ballasted by heavy-duty machinery, huge lamps, bulb convertors for electrical frequency, and an editing machine authenticated as having belonged to Michael Winner. The atmosphere of the fabled movie-going years is summoned by a case of flea sprays and perfumed chemical drenches which struggle to cover the reek of weekly bathers in sodden gabardine. Portraits of the great and the good who have visited the museum – Terry Gilliam, Mike Leigh, Winner again – dress the vestibule like church fathers. Humphries explains that a deal was struck with the NHS to adapt this part of the workhouse in 1998. And then he touches on what I’ve been searching for, that aspect of film-going now lost for ever to the digital cloud: how absolute the process of initiation once was. How it was possible to purchase a ticket for a continuous programme that ran from 1.30 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. with no breaks, no intervals. Adverts, newsreel, cartoon, trailers, B-feature, feature: step inside whenever a seat is vacated. And stay as long as you like. So there was always, within these asylums, these hidden zones of the city, a directed reverie of the beautiful and the dangerous, caperings of the wildest and most anarchic clowns. Immaculate super-beings who were never short of a snappy comeback. Freudian dreams of trains and waterfalls, and skimpily clad dancers on the wings of planes swooping over Rio.

The only recent production to tap into this form of total immersion belonged to the art world. In 2010, White Cube in Mason’s Yard, St James’s, ran Christian Marclay’s The Clock, an assemblage of film fragments, fiction and documentary referencing the relevant time of day, through the full 24-hour cycle. It became addictive. Even the most casual members of the audience stayed for around two hours, or the span of a feature film. Others were glued to their sofas, dropping into sleep and jerking back to attention, only to discover that time was still measured out in the same units. Converts would test out the 3 a.m. footage. Slump through the morning. Doze through early afternoon. By the end, there were queues, just as there had been at the Moorish picture palaces of the great days. Connections were made. New relationships were forged. There was no charge. The Clock could have become a permanent attraction. If this strategically sponsored maelstrom of quotations proved infinitely seductive, then breaking down an ordinary life into seventy films was a way of emptying cinemas, of confirming my impression that the business of honouring the rare and the perverse was over. But it was still a viable method for finding untarnished locations and a hardcore of dedicated enthusiasts happy to keep the conversation running.

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