London has got all overexcited this week, as James Bond has bounded onto our screens and onto our Tube system.
Photo by NViktor http://bit.ly/RrvrhC
So over October and November I thought we might get all shaken and stirred by all things spylike. So where better to start than with the home of Bond’s most memorable enemies… Goldfinger.
The most remarkable thing about Erno Goldfinger’s house it really was designed and built by a real life man called Goldfinger, who inspired Ian Fleming to write the book. Erno designed this hyper modern house in 1939, decades before its time. Fleming hated it so much that he took Goldfinger’s name for his book, and in doing so presumably secured the future of the building. A few years after Goldfinger’s widow Ursula Goldfinger died in 1991, it was given over to the National Trust, who have preserved the Goldfingers’ home ever since.
2 Willow Road: the Goldfinger family home.
For a member of my generation, reared on a steady diet of Grand Designs, Ikea and 60s modernism, it is difficult to see what Fleming objected to. Goldfinger was building well before Ikea, and in his home, you can really see how influential he was – his home looks like a hundred schools built in the 1960s, but so much better. His home is full of art and clever little touches. Light switches at hand height rather than shoulder height so they are easier to find in the dark, seating which swivels and gently clasps your back to be more ergonomic, drawers which swivel rather than pull out so you can always find the stuff which gets stuck in the back. I’m sorry I can’t show you what I saw: the Goldfinger house has a strict ‘no photography’ rule because of copyright. Indeed, when one of the National Trust volunteers saw my lens he gasped in horror. I can only tell you it is a curiously beautiful place.
The tour starts with a short film (I groaned inwardly when I saw this – I hate those kind of films, but this one was unusually interesting). Goldfinger was a powerful, charismatic man, who met his heiress wife in Paris. A tough and demanding boss, he once made his staff work until 4 am on Christmas Day, but was also a frequent and generous host, and devoted family man. Plainly he and Ursula were very much in love, but her money came in handy. Her money was used to buy three derelict cottages, which Erno wanted to knock down to build three houses on Willow Street. He built the largest one for himself and his wife, and the other two properties were sold to finance the Goldfinger home. The local MP was so horrified, he ran a campaign against the project, which made the national news, and it was this campaign that attracted the attention of Ian Fleming.
The tour is silent about the book and film Goldfinger, and with good reason. Erno sued over the use his name (and some of his characteristics). Auric Goldfinger is also a naturalised Briton who is Hungarian by birth and raised money for the Russian Soviets. Erno and Fleming eventually settled: Goldfinger’s name was always prefaced with the first name Auric, and the book made it very clear that the character was entirely fictional. Erno received both his costs, and six free copies of the book Goldfinger. Fleming was so angry that he nearly changed the latter part of Goldfinger’s name to a rather more intimate body part, but he was persuaded against it, thus sparing Dame Shirley Bassey’s blushes. (Watch the Goldfinger opening credits, and listen to Dame Shirley do her thing here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qt2WlDM3tEA)
The tour is clearer that Erno died an angry old man, but isn’t particularly clear why. While Goldfinger’s own house is pretty cool, he went on to build a number of tower blocks in the 1960s, most notably the Trellick Tower. Now listed and gentrified, when the Tower was built it was both hated and dangerous. A woman was raped there, and there were serious problems with drugs too. Erno and Ursula moved into the Tower’s top flat for some months to demonstrate his commitment to high rise living. He was furious that those living in his building did such horrid things, but argued their behaviour was down to them, not his building. He remained utterly committed to the concept of the high rise tower, arguing the only thing he did wrong was not building the Towers high enough. Eventually, his buildings were cleared out, a concierge and security installed, and became the desirable properties Erno had originally envisioned. But in his own lifetime, his work became discredited and unfashionable. You can see why.
The Trellick Tower (source: Wikipedia)
You get a slightly skewed, anodyne version of Erno Goldfinger from his house. Perhaps that’s inevitable. His own house is extraordinary. He built it just before the Second World War began, years before its time. In some ways it is a shame that we know him best because of a barb from Fleming. He was an artist, a designer, an art collector, a lover, a father and by all accounts a remarkably difficult chap to get along with. He may have blighted much of London’s landscape, but not this bit. This bit you should see. It shuts for the winter on 5 November, re-opening in March next year, and costs £6 per adult (£9 if you go to Fenton House which is fifteen minutes walk away). So get down there, and channel your inner Bond girl.