Londoners: Making Music

Through a crowd of faces, bodies, legs rushing across the bridge, a “ping, ping, ping” caught my ear. Ahead of me, this man was sitting on the ground, a pink toy guitar lying across his lap. He was plucking away, one string at a time, with the tip of a pen. I stopped to watch him and he grinned up at me. When I asked if I could take his photo, he nodded and then concentrated on playing louder. When I dropped a few coins into his hat, he clapped and nodded at me in thanks. I think this is my favourite photo I’ve taken since I’ve been back in London because it makes me smile when I look at it. He made my day.

Making Music

What made your day a little bit better today/yesterday? 

Londoners: Jay

My favourite photographers tend to be the ones who can capture strangers on the street clearly and with an obvious connection. Pete Zewelski is certainly one of them. Here’s the latest contribution to the Flickr pool from Pete.

Hair Apparent

This is Jay taking a wander around Gerrard Street in Chinatown.

Listen to a Londoner: Steve Slack

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you want to be interviewed, email

Steve Slack, 30

Steve is a writer and researcher working in the cultural heritage sector. He writes audioguides and museum interpretation and is currently writing a book about what happiness means to us in a modern context.
He blogs at

LLO: Tell us a bit about The Happiness Project you’re working on at the moment.
Happiness is an enormous subject. It’s vast. The more I learn about it, the more questions I have. Down the ages, the great and the good have tried to get to grips with happiness. What is it? How we define it? Thinkers and writers have produced millions of pages on this subject – so much so that I wonder if it’s worth even trying to answer such a huge question that seeks to define happiness in broad terms. Instead, I’m interested in what makes us happy as individuals. So, I started looking at some historical characters and tried to find out what they said about happiness – Aristotle, Henry VIII, Churchill. I found that an understanding of happiness is contextual – to truly appreciate what makes someone happy, one has to understand the world they live in. So one aspect of this project is looking back at some figures from history who’ve had something interesting to say about happiness. These are juxtaposed with the modern section, which involves me going and interviewing lots of people from different walks of life today, asking them what happiness means to them and what makes them happy. The idea is to build up a picture of what happiness might mean to us in a modern context [].

LLO: How do you choose who to interview for your project and what has the response been like so far?
SS: I’ve been interviewing people who have something interesting to say. To be fair, every single person has a unique perspective on happiness – there are no two answers the same. But for this project I’m trying to find people who have a unique contribution. I’ve had to rein it in somewhat, so I’m now looking for people who are living in the UK today. I’ve spoken with a Holocaust survivor, a homeless guy, Woman Farmer of the Year, a hip-hop MC, a psychiatrist, a Buddhist writer, a blind extreme sport enthusiast and more. People are really happy to put their minds to my questions and to talk. After I’ve interviewed them I write up their answers and edit it into a post for the website [].

LLO: Any thoughts on the general state of happiness among Londoners? What could we do to be a bit more cheerful?
Londoners love to have a grumble about the city. It’s expensive, it’s dirty, the infrastructure is ageing and the people are rude. But that’s only one perspective. I’ve lived in London for 12 years and I find that while some of that is true, London is still the greatest city in the world in terms of inspiration and creativity. There’s so much to do here, you can never complain of being bored. From bars and clubs, shopping, some of the best food in the world to an unrivalled cultural scene. I’ve worked in the museum sector for about a decade and I find there’s so much here to keep me going.

There’s a great blog called the Happiness Project London [] which celebrates all of these things and more. It’s a celebration of all the wonderful things to do here and it’s great way to make sure we don’t take London for granted.

LLO: Is there a place you’ve found in London that always seems to make you happy?
I have a favourite picture in the National Gallery that always makes me happy. It’s a picture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Honoré-Victorin Daumier  [] – I don’t know what it is about the painting, but it does something very strange to me. I can stand in front of it for ages and never get bored; I’m just content and happy. I find the combination of colours very relaxing and pleasing and the overlapping lines of the picture never cease to interest me. The rest of the world seems to disappear whenever I’m in the room with it. If I’ve got five minutes spare and I’m near the Gallery, I’ll pop in and have a quick look. My partner recently bought me a framed print of the picture. That made me enormously grateful that someone had gone to the trouble to think about what makes me happy.

LLO: Working in the museum/heritage sector, which London museum is your favourite and can you recommend a good one that’s a bit quirky or out of the ordinary?
SS: The Geffrye Museum [] in Hoxton is a real treat. It’s the museum of English domestic interiors. As well as some great displays it also has a charming garden and a great cafe. On the other side of the city I love the calm tranquillity of Dulwich Picture Gallery []. It’s a hidden gem in London, but it doesn’t deserve to be. The building and gardens are beautiful and the collection – although somewhat obscure – is a time capsule of late 18th-century art collecting. Less than a mile away, but very different in tone, is the fabulous Horniman Museum [] with its wide-ranging collection of musical instruments, African objects and natural history.

LLO: Give us a London fact you’ve learned while working that most people probably don’t know, but might put a smile on their face when they hear it.
SS: There’s a stuffed walrus [] in the Horniman Museum’s natural history collection. When the skin was sent to the UK from Canada in 1870 the taxidermist assigned to stuff it had never seen a live walrus. He stuffed it full of filling, like he’d stuff a horse or a dog, until it was completely full. But, of course, walruses are supposed to have rolls of blubber to keep them warm. You can still see the lines in his side where his flab should be, but unfortunately he’s far too big. It’d be a nightmare to undo the work, so he’s left there, looking rather uncomfortable. He’s supposed to be fat, but not that fat!

LLO: Tell us about the most fascinating Londoner you’ve interviewed in your life, either through museum work or your personal projects.
SS:I wrote the audio guide for an exhibition at Lambeth Palace Library recently and got to interview the Archbishop of Canterbury for the introduction. He’s a real pro when it comes to the media – he spoke directly with confidence and ease. And he did it word perfect, in one take. I guess fluent speaking goes with the job! From his study we could see the amazing gardens of Lambeth Palace. Apparently it’s the second largest private garden in London, next to Buckingham Palace.

LLO: Where’s your favourite place to go to unwind over dinner or drinks?
I love water, so I’m often to be found near the river. But in the summer it can get quite manic, so I’ll head back towards my home in south London. Camberwell and Peckham are having are real renaissance right now. There are loads of great bars and restaurants in which to eat, drink and just hang out. My back garden also has a little suntrap, so I can sometimes be found there on a summer evening with a glass of wine, watching the planes heading into Heathrow.

LLO: Favourite London discovery?
SS: I’d always assumed that if you wanted good curry in London you should head to Brick Lane. But I’d never thought of Drummond Street (near Euston Station) until a friend took me there. It’s great row of restaurants if you like south Indian food.

There’s also a great pop-up bar on top floor of a multi-storey car park in Peckham called Frank’s Cafe and Campari Bar []. It’s a unique blend of sculpture, food and drinks in the open air, with a privileged view of the London skyline.

LLO: What’s the best part about living in your postcode?
SS: Camberwell gets a bad reputation sometimes, but I think it’s a fabulous place to live. It’s relaxed and artsy and has loads of places to get coffee, food, free wi-fi and evening drinks. It’s such a creative area, there’s something for everyone and for every mood. I maintain that the best tapas in London is at Angels and Gypsies [] at the Church Street Hotel. Camberwell Arts Week [] each June is a real treat – this year we sat on the roof of the church hall and watched movies projected onto the wall at night!

Thanks Steve!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.

London Art Spot: Sandy Andy

This is Andrew Robertson, best known as “Sandy Andy”, a man who has taken the little strip of sandy beach across from Gabriel’s Wharf on the Thames and transformed it, with the help of his crew, into The Dirty Beach. Take a walk along the river and you’ll likely see a string of curious people leaning over the railing, tossing coins onto a sheet. With amazing attention to detail, Andy and his crew have constructed hands, people, monsters, rats in a sewer, dinosaurs, skulls and, most famously, the giant couches where they chill out with a beer until the tide rises up around them.

But it’s not just about playing in the sand. They also throw some brilliant BBQs with bonfires and set up sand stages for music and comedy. All the while, they’re tidying up the beach. The world is a better place when it’s clean and creative.  

For this week’s London Art Spot, Sandy Andy tells us about the fascinating and nasty things he’s found washed up on the sand, shares plenty of cool photos and maps out his life from creative entrepreneur to homeless to game show contestant and TV extra to stripper to, well, creative entrepreneur – only, on the beach.

LLO: Are you from London? If not, where are you from, how did you end up here and how long have you been here?
I am from the Midlands. After I left college, I trained and worked as an inspection engineer. I was settled with a house and a dog but it wasn’t what I wanted from life. I tried to set up my own company making handmade birthday cards, but that failed in the first year, so I tried selling magic tricks and opened a magic shop in Warwick. I came down to London six years ago to try to work in TV when my magic shop went bust and I had to sell my home to pay off the debt.

I worked as a TV extra and did a bit of modelling, but made most of my money as a professional game show contestant. For about a year I applied for every stupid game show I could and ended up winning over £26,000. But after a while I found it hard to get on any more shows as a contestant because my face kept popping up all over the place. I soon blew all the winnings on drink, girls and motorbikes. And because of my refusal to work in a proper job, my only income came from working as a stripper at weekends in Stringfellows. I ended up living homeless on the streets of London.

(Andy when he was homeless)

LLO: What made you first wander down to the little strip of sand on the Thames and decide to build a couch and how long ago did you start?
About four years ago – while I was homeless for the summer and used to potter around all over London. The beach was one of my usual haunts, but I would also spend a lot of time in the parks. Anywhere I could sit around for free, drinking in the sunshine, that would become my home. I’d make money doing a few magic tricks, busking in the streets but with no living expenses, life in the city was fairly cheap.

One day down on the sand I decided to build a person. Some chap threw down a pound and took a picture – it was quite obvious I was broke and homeless and I think he felt sorry for me. I had no intention of doing it for money, but I spread out my jacket, placed the coin on it and carried on. It turned out to be the best busking I had ever done.What made it great was the fact that once I stopped to enjoy a sit down and roll a fag people were still throwing me coins.

The sofa evolved over time as people enjoyed seeing me sitting down and doing nothing. Which is something I can do quite well.

LLO: What’s a typical Dirty Beach day by the Thames like?
It’s hard to say as no two days are ever the same. It could be a beach party with live music and lots of people drinking around an open fire or a quiet day of artistic expression with lots of quiet time for personal reflection. The difference the weather makes to my day is huge and the tides are never the same. I could be down there at 5am to start work as the tide is going out or I sometimes don’t start work until 5pm at which time London has a very different feel.

It always involves picking up a bit of litter and doing some digging to make a sculpture. Whatever happens, my beach office always has the best views of London.

LLO: What’s been your favourite sand creation so far?
 The first time I built the largest sand sofa in the world was during the London Marathon a few years back. We did all the digging by hand and Dexter Fletcher even came down to lend a hand. It was massive and we sat on it right until the tide had surrounded us like a little island. There was so many tonnes of sand it took hours to wash away.

LLO: Did you let onlookers join in on the sandy fun?
We put a shout out on on the local radio the day before the London Marathon saying we wanted help to set the world record. We ended up with hundreds of children helping, each doing a tiny bit of digging. It was great – I could not have done all that digging on my own. I love it when I inspire people to get creative.

LLO: What’s the most unusual object you’ve found washed up on the beach?
We find all sorts. I have often found syringes, condoms and horrible London rubbish, shoes and animal bones. The most unusual thing washed up with the rising tide had to be a frog. I’ve only ever seen one frog in my life hopping out of the Thames but this wouldn’t be so unusual unless it also happened to be the same day that I carved a giant frog in the sand. He hopped right up to the sculpture, an amazing coincidence.

If you go exploring at low tide you are guaranteed to find lots of old Victorian clay pipes, the sort they smoked tobacco with. There are hundreds of broken ones, but I once found one that was still usable.

LLO: I hear you’re a bit of a comedian. Tell us a good London joke?
So America got 9/11. And London got 7/7. Rating’s don’t lie, America. We’re much better than you.

Knock knock / Who is there? / Europe….Ha ha, the punchline here is NO – YOUR A POO. <This is still directed at America.>

LLO: Favourite place in London to check out a good comedy gig?
Come to the beach and do some heckling. It helps me through the day. I also like the 99 Comedy Club. They have a few venues all over town, but the most popular is in Leicester Square. It has some amazing acts and it is way cheaper then the Comedy Store or Jonglers.

LLO: How else do you spend your time when the tide’s not out?
I like to make music and I love cooking. I build sculptures at music festivals which keeps me busy in the summer, the sofa has turned into a sand stage. I have also been planning on opening a beach bar in the Bahamas.

(Luc Valvona)

LLO: Tell us about something, someone or somewhere you’ve discovered in London that you think the rest of us ought to know about.
Luc Valvona. This chap is so talented and funny. I build him a stage and he amazes the passing people. Some of his songs are quite rude, but if you don’t mind that sort of thing you will think he is amazing; you have to see him live. He made over £2,000 selling his album at a music festival in one weekend on my sand stage. He is going to be a star. He plays the majority of the tunes on our dirtybeach music album. It’s called Monster and you can see the music videos on my site

All album sales go towards helping keep the beaches of the world clean.

Thanks Andy!

For more of Andy’s work, see the Dirty Beach website or check out his Flickr set of London beach pics.

For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.

London Art Spot: Stik

This is Stik, paint-splattered and hard at work in the Mile End Arts Pavilion on some material for his solo show. Two more giant Stik people entered the world while we chatted last Saturday. He’s been creating Stik in various forms for 10 years now. You’ll find his work mainly around Hackney Wick, Dalston and Shoreditch –  Stik people resting, dancing, entire Stik families bringing life to neglected walls or empty billboards. Recently, Stik’s been branching out, with people in other parts of London asking him to graffiti Stik on their walls, working at Glasto and putting up a few pieces in Bristol. He even did a campaign for British Waterways. 

For this week’s London Art Spot, Stik tells us how his art has seen him through his toughest times on London’s streets, about the beauty of language and movement and a little story about a woman in Mayfair.

LLO: What is the significance of Stik?

Stik: Quite often, simple images are the most noted. If I’ve got too many lines, I kind of lose track of what’s going on. I like to have very few things going on, but a lot of data compression in that. This arm’s got three bends in it (pointing to one of the figures he was painting) and I think about the way it conveys movement. Beauty is in movement. That’s what it’s about. Beauty is about the way that someone moves their body. You can tell by someone’s walk if they’re angry, whether they’re happy or if they’ve just eaten. You can tell a lot about someone just by the way they’re moving their back or their eyes. There doesn’t need to be a great deal of detail there. You can see it from across the road. You can see someone silhouetted against a white wall in the night and check whether they’re walking in an aggressive way or if they’re someone you know. That’s what I’m trying to capture in my work – that direct recognition. Before writing, before speech, it’s the language of toddlers, the language of cave people, body language. I think it came from trying to speak to people I don’t share a common spoken language with, just trying to find a way of conveying complex emotions without speech.

LLO: Which piece are you most proud of and where can we see it?

Stik: Well… the one I’m most proud of I don’t talk about because it’s illegal (laughs), but the one I’m second most proud of, I really like bits and pieces I’ve done around Ladbroke Grove under the Westway as part of the Mutate exhibition.

LLO: Is Stik meant to be androgynous?

Stik: They are androgynous. They are what you decide they are and they can transcend gender.

LLO: Recently, two articles were written about you in The Big Issue.

Stik: That was through Mutate, really. I’m living in a hostel now; I was homeless for a bit. That interested me because of my own situation. I’m releasing a 3D print through a company called Squarity – 100 little images and will drop them in the city, stick them up on walls around Christmas to raise awareness for homelessness. Where and when exactly is a secret, but it will be sometime in December.

LLO: Have you ever been caught?

Stik: No. To be caught implies that you’re doing something wrong. People have caught me but then more often than not, have encouraged me, asked to take a picture. They talk about the colours. That happened down in Mayfair. This woman “caught” me. It was across from her building. She said, “I don’t like the colour. I don’t like the blue. Can you change the colour?”

LLO: How did you choose the other artists for the group show?

Stik: I never belonged to a crew really. I wanted to find where I connect to other graffiti artists. Something I found sourcing artists is that graffiti artists are quite often deep people. They’ve got meaning behind what they’re doing. It’s got a reputation for being quite an aggressive art form sometimes, or something a bit daring or radical. But some of the artists are just really sensitive and caring people and create pieces that are really delicate and perceptive. When I watch even some of the most aggressive writers up close, getting the line just so, cutting into the line so they get this perfect curve…they’re working with this spray paint which is a pressurised container of gas and chemicals and they’re trying to work with millimetres to get a curve just so. They work very gently and subtly and it’s quite touching.

LLO: Anything you want to add?

Stik: Doing this is really important. It’s an important transition for me. It’s going from being homeless and, via street art, making things more stable, a constant thing that’s been with me for a long time. It’s taken me through some really tough, dark times into the land of the living really. I’ve had an amazing time turning things around. I’ve decided this is enough to base my life on. It feels like I keep feeding it and feeding it. It’s starting to carry itself now and maybe one day it will carry me. I just want to paint all the time. I want this to be all I have to do. I want to do this because it fulfils me. It’s hard. I put every ounce of energy into it. I wake up in the morning and think okay, what can I do now? To my friends, I’m obsessed with it, but it takes a certain amount of obsession to get anywhere in this world, I think. If you’re half-hearted, people overlook you. People overlook you if you’re obsessed as well, but you just have to keep soldiering on and eventually people will go, “Hold on, that person’s got something to say; let’s listen.”  Each piece is its own piece. It’s creating a thought in public consciousness, trying to say something. It’s free art. It’s for everyone.

Thanks Stik!

Catch free entry to Stik’s solo show at the Mile End Arts Pavilion [Clinton Road (off Grove Road), Tower Hamlets, E3 5BH) now until 20 December (12-6pm, but closed on Mondays). Mutate is also running through 22 December. Check here for details!