Tag Archives: William Gibson

The Church of Science Fiction – Cadogan Hall

In 2010 I went to hear science fiction writer William Gibson in conversation with Cory Doctorow to publicise his then new novel Zero History. Most authors can’t fill a venue seating nearly a thousand people but Gibson has many followers including me so the hall was almsot full. I first sat down and read a Gibson novel, Neuromancer, in 1984 sitting in Brompton Cemetery beside that large Egyptian style mausoleum. I’ve read all his books so seeing him in the flesh was one more piece in my collection.  I felt no particular need to ask anything during the Q&A. Apart from anything else the questions being asked seemed very convoluted and erudite. Gibson is one of those crossover authors who attract both SF fans and literary types. I’d have just asked if he had any plans to collect his non-fiction into a book (which he subsequently did).  I enjoyed the event but the venue had a particular resonance for me because I had been there before it was Cadogan Hall.

side view drawing

Cadogan Hall is now a venue for music and speech. In this drawing it fits the adjective usually applied to it: Byzantine. The blue sky in the background and the campanile give it an Italianate air. This night time photo makes it seem a little bit sinister.

side view at night

I first entered the building in June 2000. The Cadogan Estate had recently purchased it from Mohammed Al Fayed, the then owner of  Harrods, who had intended to turn it into a residential property. That plan never worked out so when Cadogan took it over it had been empty since 1996. I was involved in the Chelsea Society’s summer exhibition Places of Worship which was held on the ground, or lower ground floor of the building in this room:

lower ground floor

Once the display boards had been put up and the exhibition made ready there was some time to explore the upper floors.  I think I was alone when I first climbed those silent stairs and went into what I immediately thought of as the auditorium.

interior before conversion

Seeing the raked seating, the gallery and what looked like a stage my immediate thought was  not of a church but a cinema or a theatre. There was something exotic perhaps even transgressive about the plain interior. (I was brought up in the Church of England so any ecclesiastical interior which isn’t gothic looks odd to me).  It had the whiff of the early twentieth century, which I associate with semi-occult movements like spiritualism and Theosophy. Charles Marriott in Modern English Architecture (1923)  refers to “the newer forms of religion” which nails it I think.  To my surprise he  describes the interior as “frankly an auditorium with a wide Classic portico; the organ taking the place of the altar, and the further seats rising in semi-circular tiers in the fashion of a lecture theatre”

interior before conversion 2

The building dates from 1907 and is the First Church of Christ Scientist. Christian Science came to London in 1891. The Church had first used the old Weslayan Chapel which stood on the site but as the congregation grew had decided to build a modern church. It was begun in 1904.


This postcard view shows the building in its early years.  Its position on a narrow street makes it difficult to get an impression of the whole thing. and most images are of this side view showcasing the tower “with its quaint suggestion of a mosque in the domed minaret” (Marriott again).

side view

“the idea expressed is that of universality”. A later photo shows the tower at a slightly different angle  looking up Sedding Street. (Sedding Street is named for the architect of Holy Trinity Sloane Street, the “arts and crafts cathedral” which is rather less than a stone’s throw away.)

Side view of tower

This view makes the tower look almost accessible After the exhibition was over I had the use of the library van and the help of some colleagues to move our pictures back to Chelsea Library.  I had to show them what I had found so we went back to the auditorium and even higher. I’ve never been a great fan of heights so  it was L___ and A_____ who climbed the final ladder and got to see a view like this:


I hardly knew the fourth member of our party K__ at that point but she now works with me in Local Studies. So both of us were taking no chances, preserving ourselves for our future work.

The roof picture was taken during the conversion, as was this one showing the very top of the tower:

top of tower

The auditorium of Cadogan Hall looks quite different today. This design drawing shows the plan:

interior -design drawing

This pictures show the conversion in progress:

interior during conversion

And how it looks now:

new stage

The organ and the wooden screen before:


And after:

organ loft after conversion

You can see the very door through which William Gibson  made his entrance.  As I looked round the new hall, bright comfortable and crowded with people I couldn’t map it onto my memories of the former space. My church of science fiction was another kind of church once but that place is gone.



Apart from the postcard image, all this week’s pictures were provide by the Cadogan Estate so my thanks to them and especially to Camilla, whom I first asked about the possibility of finding pictures of the hall as it used to be.

By a kind of coincidence I’m just getting to the end of Thomas Pynchon’s excellent new novel Bleeding Edge. It seemed to me that Pynchon, who has been an influence on many science fiction writers has finally begun to be influenced by Gibson.

Next week my second annual Halloween story….

Mortimer Menpes: his own private Japan

In his 2001 essay “My own private Tokyo” William Gibson argues that the people of Japan went on a rapid journey like a trip on a rocket sled from 1854 when the two hundred year period of “self-imposed isolation” in a “feudal dream-time” ended with the arrival of American ships. They went through sudden industrialisation “in kit form”, militarism and imperial ambitions, a disastrous war ending “in the light of a thousand suns” followed by a “cultural re-fit”. By end of the 20th century Japan had absorbed the tropes of Western popular culture and fashion and created its own hybrid versions of them all.

Mortimer Menpes would not have realised any of this when he made his first trip to Japan in 1888 but the ride had already begun, was already thirty years old. The illustrations to his book “Japan: a record in colour” (1901) concentrate on the traditional and picturesque but Menpes was already thinking about the way Japan had changed and would carry on changing. He was aware that some commentators were already worried about those changes.

They will lose individuality and degenerate, they are adopting Western methods, and it will kill their art, they complained. How foolish this is! The Japanese have merely changed their tools—exchanged the bow and arrow for the sword; they are just as artistic and just as intelligent as in the bow-and-arrow days;

When I tried to write about the illustrations to his book, I kept thinking of adjectives to do with light: limpid, lambent, pellucid. And qualities like serenity. The marvellous title of a novel by Ryu Murakami (the other Murakami): Almost Transparent Blue. But that wasn’t getting me anywhere. You can’t talk about Japan without thinking of the present day country. The cities, the comics, the films whether it’s Lost in Translation or My Neighbour Turturro. I went back to the text of the Menpes book, transcribed from his musings and memories by his daughter Dorothy, the other author of the book. The words seem to apply to all the Japans.

Here is Honeysuckle Street:

Honeysuckle Street

Shoppers browse in a busy street. Just as they do in the modern shopping zones of Tokyo.


Material for pictures surrounded me at every step. I wanted to make pictures of every pole and signboard that I came across.

The stall by the bridge

Like his former master Whistler, Menpes loved river views.

Osaka is the city of furnaces, factories, and commerce,—the centre of the modern spirit of feverish activity in manufacturing and commercial enterprise.

The Ajikawa is still the Ajikawa of the olden time, and on the eastern side of the city is the Kizugawa, into which—thanks to the shallowness of the bar—no steamer ever intrudes, while the city itself is intersected by a vast network of canals and waterways, all teeming with junks and barges, and crossed by graceful wooden bridges which lend themselves admirably to line.

The Venice of Japan

Over the bridge

Japan is not being Westernised in the smallest degree: she is merely picking our brains.


Night in Japan fascinated me almost more than anything—the festoons of lanterns crossing from one street to another, yellow-toned with black and vermilion lettering.

A street scene, Kioto

By the light of the lantern


I shall never forget my first rainy day in Japan. I went out in the wet and stood there, hatless but perfectly  happy, watching the innocent shops light up one by one, and the forest of yellow oil-paper umbrellas with the light shining through looking like circles of gold, ever moving and changing in the purple tones of the street.

You wonder which set of pictures the words accompany.

Umbrellas and commerce

In those city streets Menpes recorded women walking, like a modern day street style photographer.

A street in Kioto

The streets are more crowded now. Some of the women still carry parasols.

2 japan street pics

She delights in her own delightsomeness; she wants frankly to be as charming as nature and art will allow; she wants to be beautiful; and she honestly and assuredly wants me and you and the stranger artists to think her beautiful.

Miss Pomegranate

……..there is still a living art in Japan at the present day in the designs of the silk dresses that they wear. They are so modern, so up-to-date, and yet so characteristic of Japan. The women are very extravagant in their dress…….


Menpes called these women butterflies.


Gibson concludes his essay by saying that the Japanese  have “made it out the far end of that tunnel of prematurely accelerated change.” and that they were “Home at last in the twenty-first century.”

Fete day


I think Menpes would have understood what he meant.

An avenue of lanterns


You can find the full text and pictures from Japan: a picture in colour at Project Gutenberg. (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/32086/32086-h/32086-h.htm )

My own private Tokyo is in Gibson’s collection Distrust that particular flavour (2012). Do I really need to tell you to read it, and all his others? Having got Michael Moorcock into this blog a couple of weeks back I wanted to get my current favourite author into a post as well. Gibson is one of the few American authors who can write convincingly about London. I thought his characters didn’t often enter Kensington and Chelsea. Cayce Pollard visits Portobello Road and Harvey Nichols in Pattern Recognition but that was about it. Then I remembered Kumiko Yanaka in Mona Lisa Overdrive (a long time since I read that one) , I’ve started reading it again since I drafted this post and found that she’s all over Notting Hill and Earls Court.Maybe there is some scope for a Gibson in Kensington post. Are there any other locations?

The images of modern Japanese cities were found by putting place names like Shinjuku and Harajuku into Google. Try it yourself. I wish I could have included the Hello Kitty bus. www.japanesestreets.com is the address of the Japanese Streets street style blog, a guide to what the modern boys and mobile girls are wearing in in Tokyo.

Thanks once again to Alex Buchholz and Peter Collins of Westminster Central Reference Library for loaning me their physical copy of Japan. (Kensington had several of his others but not that one.)

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