Christopher Curtis: Highbury Corner history man

Estimated reading time:8 minutes, 40 seconds

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Christopher Curtis is well-known in Islington. Find him selling local history and classic football prints and photographs on his Chapel Market stall or join him for a tour of Highbury Corner and Holloway Road for a walk around Joe Orton’s world. Interview by Nicola Baird

Christopher Curtis: local history photo and print seller - here with the old stand at Highbury's clock.

Christopher Curtis: local history photo and print seller – here with the old clock at the old Highbury ground off Gillespie Road.

“I was two when my mother moved to Islington. We lived at 33 Plimsoll Road,” says Christopher Curtis. He went to Ambler Primary School and then Tollington.

“I remember Plimsoll Road was very, very quiet even with the transport café [now a private house]. I always thought I was missing out… but then there was Highbury. On Saturday and Tuesday you saw people – it was so good to live next to a football ground.”

Christopher, now 52, was able to go to a few games, and like many kids sometimes saw the last 10 minutes for free when the turnstiles were opened.

The original pillar from the old Highbury station is on the left of today's entrance. I was lucky and got Christopher Curtis to show me it using one of his photos as a prop.

The original pillar from the old Highbury station is on the left of today’s entrance. I was lucky and got Christopher Curtis to show me it using one of his photos as a prop.

Nowadays it’s local history that he loves, and nowhere more so than the area around Highbury Corner. “There’s so much history within the half mile radius of where we are sitting,” he says as we drink tea in Amici café. “Elton John recorded an album on Furlong Road, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono visited that house – he points down the road past the law courts and the Wig and Crown pub – “at 101 Holloway Road to donate their hair to Michael X who’d set up the Black House. I’ve got a picture of them all on top of the roof around 1970, you can see Mary Magdalene’s church spire. When I found it, I just thought it was amazing, people don’t know John Lennon came to Highbury Corner. And then you’ve got Joe Meeks, and the first gay pride meeting – there’s a plaque on the old toilets, near the swimming pool.”

You can feel Christopher has so many stories to tell. Turns out he sold newspapers by Highbury tube station for five years – until 2008 when Network Rail wouldn’t renew the lease, so he’s seen most of us… “Arthur Mullard* was quite a character, very well known in Yus My Dear, who was always there. And there were two elderly twins dressed in dandy style with checked suits, they looked like theatrical people – and sometimes their sister would be there who wore a lot of makeup, very eccentric people.”

He met a lot of famous people passing by too… obviously Boris Johnson, Nick Hornby, Clive Anderson and Alan Davies. “Once Joan Armatrading asked for directions for the Almedia Theatre,” he says. Christopher’s memories of the stars who’ve passed through Highbury go back years…“I remember seeing the guys from Spandau Ballet in their red Ferraris screeching around Highbury Corner – that was back in the ‘80s when even their saxophone player Steve Norman was a big celebrity. I used to see Dave Vanian from The Damned walking through Highbury Fields in the ‘80s.

Do you know your Highbury history?
Selling papers made Christopher curious about Highbury Corner – here’s what he loves:

The Famous Cock Tavern is where Highbury station used to be.

The Famous Cock Tavern is where Highbury station used to be.

The old tube station
“There was a beautiful station here until the 1950s. When people see the picture they think it’s St Pancras – talk about jaw dropping when you say it’s near where the Post Office is, where the pub is now. It was demolished to make way for the roundabout. You can still see an original column (see photo). The irony is that Highbury and Islington is a hub now.”

 Joe Meek – legendary producer and writer of Telstar
“Joe Meek lived, worked, and died on the Holloway Road.”

John Lennon was here on Holloway Road
“That’s brilliant!  In the ‘60s there was so much creativity. It must have been exciting! Yet not many people are aware that John Lennon was coming to Holloway Road.”

20140121_151807Walter Sickert – the notorious artist
“I don’t know too much about him, but I get invited to all the exhibitions. His studio on Highbury Fields had such good light and he knew all those artists, actors and musicians.”

Joe Orton
“Joe Orton and Ken Halliwell lived at Noel Road. My Joe Orton walk is based around the Islington landmarks mentioned in The Joe Orton Diaries. It ends at The Library in St John Street. The books are on display at Islington Museum, 245 St John Street, EC1.”

Arsenal
“I’d recommend visiting the Emirates. Just to see it.”

Joe Orton walk
Christopher’s unique Joe Orton walk starts at the bridge near Holloway tube, to find traces of a small public lavatory that has long been sealed up. Then you walk up Holloway Road past the library. Opposite there’s the spot where St Mary Magdalene’s lavatories – now gone – were located and where Joe Meek was arrested for importuning.

“Joe Orton* and Kenneth Halliwell damaged books by making rude collages,” explains Christopher. “What they got off on was sitting in the foyer and watching the little old ladies getting shocked by what they found. There was a big sting operation to find them – it’s amazing. The library sent a letter to Halliwell accusing him of abandoning a car. Halliwell wrote back a furious letter saying it wasn’t his, but the library matched the writing with the altered library books! They went to prison for six months.”

The authority’s response to Halliwell and Orton’s rather schoolboy humour – and sexual antics in public lavatories – seem massively misjudged from a 2014 viewpoint, though it also possibly explains why Islington still has so few public toilets.  Christopher finds the whole story intriguing. “I still know their neighbour,” he adds. “She’s Elena Salvoni, known as the Queen of Soho. She’s 93 from Italian Clerkenwell stock. When they died she got their bicycles! She visits me at my stall and is really nice – has lots of stories herself, including the time she met jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.”

Vagabond at Charter Court, off Stroud Green Road, http://vagabondn4.co.uk/ “does amazing hot chocolate on a stick,” says Christopher Curtis.

Vagabond at Charter Court, off Stroud Green Road, N4 “does amazing hot chocolate on a stick,” says Christopher Curtis.

It’s a pleasure to meet someone like Christopher who knows so much about the area and has plenty of stories to share. You can find him selling photographs of local landmarks – lots of the old Highbury football ground – and other iconic Islington moments at his stall in Chapel Market. You can join him on a Joe Orton walk, warming up at cafes, or practicing Tai Chi at The Tai Chi Chaun Academy in Archway, N7. http://www.tcca.org.uk/

To join a Joe Orton walk arrange a date/time that suits you with Christopher Curtis on his market stall (Angel end, close to Superdrug). You can find him selling local history prints/photographs and classic football prints/photos at Chapel Market from Wednesday – Sunday.

WORDS/EXTRA INFO

*See link to find out more Britain’s most notorious black power spokesman, Michael X and the Black House 95-101 Holloway Road here, http://darkestlondon.com/2013/06/17/michael-x-and-the-black-house-of-holloway-road/ Seems John Lennon and Yoko Ono turned up with their shorn hair, which they allegedly swapped for Muhammad Ali’s bloodied shorts, so Michael X could put it into Sotheby’s art auction…For more about Michael X and Mohammed Ali’s Highbury fight see Redemption Song by Mike Marquesee (Verso)

*Arthur Mullard was born in Islington, around 1910. Yus My Dear was a 1970s comedy. The note on Wikipedia mentions that after he died his daughter accused him of sexually abusing her for years, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Mullard

“For somewhere to eat we’re spoilt for choice. There’s a good Korean place opposite Rowans,” says Christopher Curtis. Dotori on the left, Rowans on the right. “Rowans* used to be the Majestic Ballroom – the Beatles used to have a residency there. http://www.beatlesbible.com/1963/04/24/live-mersey-beat-showcase-london/  I heard that Ringo Starr used to drink away from them in the George Robey, the pub opposite the Astoria Cinema,” (when first built in the 1930s it was one of the largest cinemas in the world), later known as the famous music venue, the Rainbow Theatre. It is now home to the headquarters of the UKCG pentecostal church, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_Theatre

“For somewhere to eat we’re spoilt for choice. There’s a good Korean place opposite Rowans,” says Christopher Curtis who has lived near Finsbury Park for the past 30 years. Dotori on the left, Rowans on the right. “Rowans* used to be the Majestic Ballroom – the Beatles used to have a residency there. See here. I heard that Ringo Starr used to drink away from them in the George Robey, the pub opposite the Astoria Cinema,” (when first built in the 1930s it was one of the largest cinemas in the world), later known as the famous music venue, the Rainbow Theatre. It is now home to the headquarters of the UKCG pentecostal church, see some history here.

* I emailed Rowans asking if they had any history about the Beatles performing at this venue. Their email response was quick, but disappointing. Here it is:

Hello Nicola,

Thank you for your email, sorry but we have no information on the previous owners or previous usage of the property. We have heard most information can be found on google but never looked into it.

Kind Regards Rowans Tenpin Bowl

Playwright Joe Orton* was murdered by his boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell (who then committed suicide) on 9 August 1967 in their flat at Noel Road, N1. See more here, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Orton |A well-known biography of Joe Orton is Prick up your ears by John Lahr (published 1978 and later made into a film). The exhibition of the defaced library books was held in 2012, see newspaper review http://www.theguardian.com/stage/charlottehigginsblog/2012/feb/14/john-lahr-joe-orton-interview  From February 2014 there’s a new Kenneth Halliwell collage at Islington Museum, see this press release here.

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. 

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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z list of posts, or the A-Z of jobs to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola