There’s a box on my street

5 July 2015
Ben Pentreath

If you know me well, you’ll know that one of my favourite films of all time is the movie Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s incredible essay on a dystopian, bureaucratic future which from time to time makes one entirely give up hope. I remember vividly an incredible evening at the Art Workers Guild, a few years ago now, when the Master, Assheton Gorton, had asked his friend Terry to give a talk to the Guild. The room was packed; the evening was electric. We were in the presence of a wonderful, happy, zany genius. And I think Brazil is his finest film.


This is the interior of the opening scene… a magnificent, huge, strange office, filled with men in suits busily doing absolutely nothing at all.

You can find the video here… worth a two minute detour.

You see what I mean? Brilliant.  And hasn’t that tune given a kick to your Monday morning?Well, we’ve been in our very own little world of Brazil this week over on Rugby Street.  On Tuesday morning, this turned up outside the shop.



It was a large metal box with no explanation.P1080833

If this was evolution, I wasn’t very happy about it. What was this weird box? Who is Elliott?P1080834

It has blue doors.P1080835

And a look at the Parking suspension notice reveals it is going to be sitting outside our shop for a very long time – until September.  A good thing that Bridie and I hadn’t just organised a street party to celebrate summer, hey?

Now, I don’t know about you but I love our street. And I LOVE our shopfront – and, for that matter, that of our neighbours… Maggie Owen, and Thornback & Peel. it’s not all the time that I give the street a shout out on the blog; we are, after all, modest and retiring types… hehehe…P1080836

Maggie’s shop was a beautiful Dairy in the 19th century…P1080837

Thornback & Peel’s lovely display of their printed linens:P1080841

Well, the view of all the shops is completely blocked by the giant metal box.  You can’t even see Maggie’s shop at all, from the other side of the road. Crazy. Didn’t whoever left this box on the street realise that us little retailers depend on people being able to see where we are?  I suppose not.P1080832

We got on to the council.  It turns out the box is part of a new Health and Safety policy for the building workers who are repairing some of the facades of the buildings on Lambs Conduit Street. And this is their new little home for the next 12 weeks.P1080838

You know, already, that I’m a great fan of Health & Safety. I’ve even gone to the lengths of getting our Health & Safety poster letterpressed, so as not to upset the aesthetic of the office.  Get your copy here. They are seriously cool.

But we are all wondering if the box could have gone elsewhere. Or, even, if it was strictly speaking necessary at all?  But where the movie Brazil kicks in was listening to Zoe, who sits next to me in the office, calling Camden Council on Thursday afternoon to see if the box could be moved a little bit, to right at the end of our street, where there is a lot more room and where it wouldn’t hide Maggie and Thornback & Peel from the life of Lambs Conduit Street.

In all, during the week, Zoe had spoken with nine different departments. It was comical. I have to admit I was pissing myself laughing. “So what you’re telling me”, she was saying to the lady at the end of the phone, “is that I need to speak to Licensing”.  Each department she’d called had given her a new phone number to try. “WELL THE VERY FIRST DEPARTMENT I CALLED WAS LICENSING AND THEY SAID IT WAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THEM“.

In all seriousness, I love Camden council, but it possibly is true to say that the only thing they are really REALLY good at organising is Civil Partnerships, as Charlie and I found when we tied our knot in the Town Hall back in January. Brilliant.  But when it comes to a lot of other things, I am afraid that we can get embroiled in incredible bureaucracy… which makes one slightly desperate.  And in our own tiny little way, may we spare a passing thought for poor, sad Greece, just now? Good on them.

I was reflecting, while taking photographs of the steel shed, just how much I love Rugby Street… its gentle curve of the facades; its beautiful, early Georgian brick facades.

On the other side of the street from us is one of the finest early Georgian street ensembles in the whole of London. The buildings are remarkably intact, with their beautiful, tall sash windows and extraordinary, elaborate carved door surrounds. It’s worth a visit to Rugby Street just to see these wonderful buildings.P1080845

But as I was looking, I spied another box; very anonymous, very grey.
P1080846 P1080847

This one is not so large, but it is here for ever. It’s a broadband box, I think.

Isn’t it strange how a beautiful red K6 Phone Box, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, is a thing that still gives us joy and has become a beautiful part of the street scene wherever it was placed – often with tremendous sensitivity to the precise qualities of the surrounding architecture.  Here are three examples, pulled at random from some of my photos of London:

P1030154 P1050156 P1170648

We can’t quite say the same today.  And that, I think, is a shame.

I’m not saying Broadband boxes need to be classical temples (although that would be a start). Perhaps my friend Tom Heatherwick could have had a go at doing something beautiful and interesting. Or perhaps someone, just someone, could have given a thought to this gross metal box in front of the beautiful buildings. P1080848

I suspect the door canopies will be around a lot longer than the box.P1080851 P1080852 Next door, 18 Rugby Street, where Ted Hughes wrote his famous poem to Sylvia Plath:

So there in Number Eighteen Rugby Street’s

Victorian torpor and squalor I waited for you.

I think of that house as a stage-set –

Four floors exposed to the auditoriums.

On all four floors, in, out, the love-struggle

In all its acts and scenes, a snakes and ladders

Of intertangling and of disentangling

Limbs and loves and lives. Nobody was old….

Golly, that’s a first. The first time I have ever posted a poem on the blog.

The blog, for many of you, is about finding beauty in the world, and you’ll know that I find beauty where it’s not always expected… particularly on a hot, sunny weekend in London. So I’m sorry to give you photographs only of metal crap thoughtlessly tossed on to a little London street – some of it temporary, and ridiculous; some of it permanent, and sad.

To cheer up your Monday, here’s a shot of the Rose Garden in Regent’s Park at dusk, this evening. I had gone for a run to the park (don’t worry, I can only walk back). Thank goodness for that. It turns out that life really is a bunch of roses after all.


I’ll keep you posted on what happens next on the street, but I’m not quite holding my breath.

Oh… and watch this space for news of our Summer Sale, coming to a little store near you very soon…

Lots of other news in the offing, for which you’ll have to wait a week or two, and all will be revealed.  I hope you have a really wonderful week.

28 comments on this post

Amy Bsays:

Thank you so much for your constant inspiration. Seeing gardens and building details through your eyes over the past couple of years has, surprisingly to me, made a big impact. I have had the good fortune to visit my sister in the Northbeach neighborhood of San Francisco once a month. I’ve made my way weekly by train and on foot through the Telegraph Hill neighborhood. Each time I wander through a newly discovered block, I am reminded of the architectural beauty – mainly because I find myself thinking, what would Ben take a photo of? Thank you for reminding me of amazing beauty in my backyard.

Regarding the box, I’m fairly certain that the bureaucrats in London don’t have as lovely a view out their windows as your shop. A bouquet of flowers might go a long way to making friends with the powers that be. Good luck!

Michele Thomassays:

Bonjour Ben, as a pentreath-and-hall enthusiast living in Versailles I must share with you how we do it on this side of the Channel : the City council runs a partnership with the local fine arts school ( to cover all these ugly broadband boxes and other street furniture using trompe l’oeil technique. Subjects like great contributors to the Chateau (Le Notre), baroque musicians cameo portraits and fables de La Fontaine have appaeared in the city streets and it doesn.t cost a single euro to the council as it is a school project. The RER C train that travels from Paris to versailles is decorated with bookcases, drapes and side tables and make you feel like sitting in marie antoinette’s library….let´s keep finding beauty in the world !

David Sanderssays:

Ben, this has all hallmarks of a Kafkaesque drama: feelings of isolation an anxiety, when trying to deal with bureaucrats; who give you the runaround – endlessly. Hope the anonymous, mysterious looking grey box with blue doors; does what the Tardis usually does, and blasts off into another time zone soon.

I’m slightly confused – did you & Charlie get married or civilly partnered ? I see you use husband in your descriptions and I took that to mean you were civilly married; no offence to those who are civil partners but I personally loathe ” civil partnership” as a bit of apartheid for gays & lesbians. Fine when that was all that was on offer but it was “settling” nonetheless.


I could have a rant about public sector mindsets…but it’s not good for my blood pressure!! best, Nicola


I would contact your local councillor and the leader of the council to ask for their help in moving the box. Elected councillors should have a greater impact! Alternatively find the name of senior officers such as a relevant director.


I vote for sending a copy of this blog to all your council members and to major and minor newspapers in London!! Then decorate the box with your shop’s Health and Safety posters! You will probably get in a lot of trouble!

Since the box is hiding the shops, why not cover the box with images of the shops? Or at least advertisements for the shops, which would be considerably less work. But I can’t help thinking how cool it would be–a new tourist attraction!–if the long sides of the box were done in tromp l’oiel, so that if you were standing directly across the street from it, you would see–exactly what you would see if it wasn’t there!

That small grey box could be turned into a miniature K6 phone box without too much effort, I think? Creativity is anathema to bureaucrats, so maybe it would agitate them to do something.

It does seem to take a special kind of ignorance to just plop a huge metal barrier directly in front of a place of business, and not expect any protest. Good luck, Ben!


So sorry about the ghastly box but if it refuses to budge can you ‘take ownership’ of the exterior shell and decorate/mural it/paint it – could be an interesting installation to complement the shop?
I just feel that when one cannot control a certain situation they must devise ways to make it work for them.

On a different note, may I flag up a potential blog post for you?

You mentioned a while back that you would might reveal more detail on how Charlie and you met. What are the chances of this in the next few weeks? It could be a rather summery and lovely blog post, non? I’m thinking that you tell the story and lace in a few lines of Keats, peut-etre?



How thoughtless to shopkeepers who are trying to keep bricks & mortar stores alive despite this internet driven world (like where I am right now), BUT…

I really like Nicola’s solution. Just move it. Often the right govt. hand doesn’t know what the left govt. hand is doing, or in this case, the multitude of departments. For years an unused telephone pole lay alongside our road, and our neighbors asked them when it was going to be used, to no avail or that it would be set up “soon”. So… after awhile, our neighbors had it hauled away. And no one ever noticed or commented!

Please do keep us all posted.

Gaye G.says:

Are you sure it’s not the Tardis in disguise?

Hear hear! Couldn’t agree more re: box design. Such a dreary colour – why not Paul Smith stripes, or a lovely Liberty print? Something beautifully British. When you have taken so much trouble with your lovely frontage it seems an affront to aesthetics to have that ugly trailer squatting outside!


You pretentious fart. Don’t you realise the irony of these first world problems of which you complain renders you more of a problem than the box! You really need to get out more.

Paint the bloody box vibrant colours and maybe a mural or even plant a Russian Vine close by.
Keep smiling
ATB William.

Pierre B.says:

Squary comment: Let us hope the big box will be removed by September.

Roundy comment: Thank you for the roses!


Meanwhile perhaps line up some guerrilla knitters and ask them to ‘decorate’ the box? As my mad old Australian neighbour used to say, ‘Turn it into a feature darling!’

Having just returned from Paris I am convinced that they would not tolerate either of the two metal boxes seen on Rugby Street in their streets. At least the large box will be on its way eventually even though it blocks your gorgeous shop front in the meantime. The Broadband box should be redesigned, how about doing something about it Ben?


Nicola has the very best advice
Would love
to see that towed in the dark of an early Monday morning to somewhere truly obstructive

Halina Ksays:

I think definitely think that guerrilla decoration of the box might be worth a go. Paint a couple of windows on it and add some trailing geraniums. A few small chairs and an awning? A Dorset beach hut? Free your inner Banksy? A trompe l’oeil with green vistas….? Ivy!!!

We were at your shop on Saturday and did wonder about the grey box!


Usually, mention of Ted Hughes makes me cross. But I like this poem, sitting as it does above the roses in Regents Park, which used to be my back garden. Front garden too.

That box is undeniably ugly. Could you not decoupage or paint or otherwise improve it? Guerrilla beautification? Surely something is possible whilst not rendering it unfunctional.


Thank you, Ben, as always. We desperately need people like you.

UGH that is one ugly box. i’m surprised that they could place it in front of your shop without notification. good luck getting it moved.


Certainly someone at the company who owns the box knows who ordered it and why? it surely cant be a government secret?

oy vey good luck with getting it moved. perhaps there are council laws about something like this blocking a business and affecting it?

curiously awaiting the news…

Charlotte Ksays:

In my New England suburb of Boston there is so much ugliness from random architectural mistakes made over the years (none of it deliberate). But our signal boxes are all in the process of being cheerfully and creatively painted by local artists. It really makes a difference.

Nicola Lawrencesays:

Dealing with bureaucracy – passing the buck-aucracy….. is dementing. A similar thing happened in a narrow residential street in Melbourne. The ‘box’ took up two scarce car parks and after some months with no evidence of life in or around the box and with frustrating dealings with Council…. ‘somebody’ cleverly took it upon themselves to tow the box around the corner, into a ‘no standing zone’… where it was promptly towed away… by Council! Good luck?!

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