To Newhaven last Saturday, an uphill climb to the fort for the music/culture event Fort Process. Having to work in London that morning, I didn't arrive until the middle of the afternoon (it kicked off at 12:00). On the way from the station to the fort I was latterly engaged in conversation with a middle-aged man who looked ideally suited to that kind of event. I thought he might be a performer and asked him who he was - he didn't say, but told me that he was playing with the headline act Peter Brotzmann - I later discovered he was Steve Noble, a legend of the free improv scene - oops - it's an area of music I've occasionally dipped my toe into over the years, but I'm no expert.
The main reason I went was because two of my friends English Heretic and Haunted Shoreline were giving talks in the 'School Room' (both of which I missed because of aforesaid late arrival). I was intrigued by the location and the few acts that I'd heard of and it was reasonably local to Hastings. Walking around, I was hugely impressed by the venue. In the 1960s and 1970s Newhaven was our regular family holiday destination and we stayed on a caravan site close to the fort - in those days it was dilapidated, dangerous and strictly off limits, surrounded with barbed wire and deep ditches, but to a teenage boy it had a massive mysterious appeal - it was not that long since the end of WW2 and perhaps my interest in underground sites and tunnels was already festering. Before entering I wandered up the road to the caravan site, only to discover that it's been completely built over, as are the fields opposite where we used to watch horses graze.
I had no idea of the size of the fort and was shocked when I gained access - it's very large (and deep) and I'm not sure I managed to see all the parts of it over the course of the afternoon and evening. I'm sure I'll regret not making more of an effort to see everything that was going on (and there was a lot), but performances were taking place all over the site, some in tunnels and subterranean spaces, others in bunkers looking out over the sea, or in former barrack rooms or storerooms. A large nissan hut in the considerable open space in the centre of the fort was home to many of the more 'well-known' performers and was where Peter Brotzmann chose to play at the end of proceedings. An inflatable stage had been erected in the central space, but there was lots of room to wander round, and tables and chairs to sit at. The good weather really benefitted the event - you could stand or lie on the ramparts and watch the sun set, look dreamily out to sea, while a cacophonous noise was taking place behind you or wander in and out of other events in the central area.
I really liked the fact that there was no heavy security whatsoever - ie. huge men searching bags for bottles of water and sandwiches to be wastefully confiscated, or telling you where you could and couldn't go - you could wander around wherever you wanted - some events took place in a really deep cellar down a massive steep staircase - quite a hippyish vibe actually. Some of the musical installations were a highlight for me: the glass harmonica; motorized plastic strips flailing against a wall sounding like a fountain etc. The audience was surprisingly young - the Brighton contingent? - many of the usual suspects with huge Hoxton beards and tattoos.
From the small amount of music I heard the band I enjoyed most was Ex-Easter Island Head, who were probably the most conventionally 'rock' of all the musicians there - an invigorating propulsive mix of Steve Reich and Glenn Branca, with obvious memories of Sonic Youth concerts in the 1980s - they hit electric guitars on tables with mallets and have a powerful drummer - go see. A real contrast with the Artaud Beats who seemed too studiedly precious and anti-rock for my tastes - sad, as they featured a number of ex-members of Henry Cow. Other highlights were John Butcher who summoned up unbelievable sounds from a saxophone and Peter Brotzmann and Steve Noble (a formidable drummer) - I have to say that Brotzman sounded exactly as I expected him to, but even so it was impressive to witness. It was also lovely to meet up with Haunted Shoreline again. A really great event.
To Brede earlier this week, just a few miles outside Hastings, to do a little bit of research into a local legend. The lovely church of St George's is a fascinating place to visit and contains in the Lady Chapel a recumbent monument to a local worthy from a noble family residing at nearby Brede Place.
Sir Goddard Oxenbridge of Brede (d.1537) in local legend has been transformed into a fearsome giant who roamed the countryside, carrying off children to devour them. Jacqueline Simpson in her Folklore of Sussex tells us more (pp.29-30):
'Nobody could get at him to kill him, partly because of his great strength, and partly because a crow which was his familiar, always brought him warning. Moreover, he was proof against all normal weapons, though it had been foretold that a wooden saw would be his death. Meanwhile he was still unharmed and every day he ate one child for supper.
So at length, all the children of Sussex gathered together, and in great secrecy they brewed an enormous vat of beer (a drink previously unknown in the district), and fashioned a huge wooden saw. They brought the vat to Groaning Bridge, at the entrance to Brede Park, where Sir Goddard could not fail to see it, and they lay in ambush near the bridge. Sure enough, the giant saw the beer, smelled it and began to drink; in next to no time he had drained the vat, and was lying helplessly drunk on the bridge. Then the children brought out their saw and laid it across him , as if across a fallen free. Those from East Sussex rode on one end of it, and those from West Sussex upon the other, and so they sawed Sir Goddard Oxenbridge in half. Long afterwards, his ghost was still said to haunt both the house and the bridge, in the form of a severed trunk.'
According to the church's guide book Sir Goddard 'is reputed to have been a man of unusually large stature' and is remembered locally as 'The Brede Giant' In the 19th century the local pottery even produced plaques portraying the "Brede Ogre"'. However, it regards this gruesome story as a 'monstrous calumny on a pious and generous benefactor.' Simpson suggests that the reason for this hostile depiction was that Sir Goddard, together with other Sussex ogres and cannibals (such as 'Wild Darrell' of Scotney Castle) were Roman Catholics and that 'these legends reflect the deep religious and political hatreds of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries' and I would tend to agree. More here.
Reading old guidebooks it's clear that Brede Place had a beautiful interior and was open to the public. Sadly a serious fire in 1979 resulted in it's rebuilding and closure to visitors. In earlier days one visitor was the playwright J M Barrie who is said to have based the character of Captain Hook in Peter Pan on a rector of the church (1841-1851) John William Maher, who had travelled extensively and was reputed to have been associated with pirates.
More from the guidebook: 'On the east side of the early sixteenth century oak screen that separates the Lady Chapel from the chancel is a stone capital bearing a version of the arms of Sir Goddard Oxenbridge, irregularly quartered with those of his wife Elizabeth nee Echingham. The outsize 'supporters' portray a man of the woods and his wife both clothed in skins. As well as the heraldic shield, they also hold up a typical early 16th century helm; the small head, half concealed by the mantling, is popularly thought to be the woodfolk's baby.' These figures were repainted c.1980. All photos by me.
I really hope that the Sax Rohmer book will finally emerge in the autumn, especially as I have arranged the promotional event in December. I've made corrections to the typeset pdf file, but there's been a further delay with a redesign of the cover (how very 1970s prog rock). Sincere apologies to anyone who's been waiting - I know there are a few out there.
Work on another book is well underway and I hope to publish it through Accumulator Press in spring or autumn next year. I'm so excited by the cover design that I have to get the book written to go with it.
The second part of Christopher Josiffe's piece on Rollo Ahmed can be found in this month's Fortean Times. He lived in Harpsichord House in Hastings Old Town in the mid-1950s (according to electoral registers Abdul Said Ahmed and Theodora M. Ahmed lived there in 1954 and 1955). When I was going through parts of the huge Yorke Archive at the Warburg Institute I found a letter written in 1954 by Ahmed's wife to Lady Frieda Harris asking to be put in touch with friends and followers of Aleister Crowley. In the same year the Daily Sketch carried a story about him, wherein he is described as a 'black magic practitioner' and 'father of five, [a] dark-skinned slim man with white hair and a carefully trimmed Vandyke beard.'
His 'temple of black magic', a locked room on the first floor, consisted of 'a vast, clean, sparsely-furnished room with tall latticed windows...A cheap lithograph of Christ on the mantelshelf is crowded by jungle idols, an incense burner and a painted sphere used in occult rites.' The room's walls are lined with '30 hard uncomfortable chairs' with a table at one end, where Ahmed sits, dressed in a 'red silk scarf, fawn beret and duffel coat'. This is probably the room that's used as a studio by the Royal Academician who currently lives in Harpsichord House. I've always thought this building had a slightly sinister appearance, the room in question sits above a footpath with steps down to the Old Town in Cobourg Place and makes this part of the path quite dark, although there is a lamp - opposite the front door a metal-covered opening (frequently peeled back) is presumably a disused entrance to the St Clement's Cave complex. As I said in the previous post, John Martyn lived two doors down from here in the 1970s.
In the article Ahmed awaits the arrival at the weekend of a woman seeking to re-ignite the affections of a former lover; the ritual he has devised will be lit by a single candle. He will 'receive her in a purple-cowled cloak and a black cardboard mask to the throb of jungle drums - a gramophone record. Music will play too...' Ahmed had already sent her a talisman (he had received the man's army identity bracelet and a lock of his mother's hair) which has 'called for work on two periods of the new moon. The aim of the power is to compel the person to do as you wish. If they do not then misfortune will be their lot.' The article under the headline Father Practises Black Magic in Temple at Holiday Resort includes a rather unsettling photograph of Ahmed sitting hooded and masked at his desk in his temple.
A few years ago I went on a ridiculously sensationalized ghost walk around the Old Town (apparently Sweeney Todd spent his early years at a butchers in the High Street - see my Folklore of London for the history of this fictional character). By Harpsichord House we were told that Aleister Crowley had lived nearby (place unspecified) and would repair to the nearby castle in the small hours to sacrifice children. Crowley's only place of residence in Hastings was Netherwood on The Ridge (see the book - now going for £50, this is getting crazy, although the prices on Amazon are even worse) and by that time he was in no fit state to slaughter the innocent. However, I wonder if some confusion with Rollo Ahmed (who had known Crowley, as is clear from Josiffe's article - he helped him find lodgings in London according to A Memoir of 666 by Alan Burnett Rae that can be found in Sandy Robertson's The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook p.23) has fed this rumour about a so-called Black Magician living in that vicinity.
Looking for a photo of Harpsichord House I found this article (unfortunately it's from the Daily Mail) about Alastair (!) Hendy's restored Tudor house in All Saint's Street, which we visited once on an open day. He also runs a very old-fashioned (and expensive) ironmongers (and occasional restaurant) where I bought my favourite much-used feather duster.
I've just heard about this event - sounds great. My friends English Heretic and Haunted Shoreline should be appearing. Many childhood holidays were spent on a caravan site next to the fort, which in those days was derelict and dangerous and became a site of fascination for me. More here.
Rollo Ahmed, who I discovered when trawling through the Gerald Yorke Archive (in a letter sent by his wife to Frieda Harris) at the Warburg Institute (presently under threat of closure, please sign this petition) lived nearby in the mid-1950s - in fact next door to the house that would later be home to John Martyn (see earlier post), has a two part article devoted to his life in this and next month's Fortean Times. He was a friend of Dennis Wheatley and appears in Phil Baker's excellent biography which is where I obtained most of my information on him for a footnote in Netherwood. Ahmed's a mysterious character and someone I thought about doing more research on myself, so I'm glad Christopher Josiffe has saved me the trouble.
Personally I think that Edge of the Orison is Iain Sinclair's worst book (way too long and self-indulgent), but part of that project the walk of humble poet John Clare from Epping Forest to Northamptonshire, has been made into a film that includes Toby Jones, son of that bizarre actor Freddie (who's apparently also in it) and directed by local film maker Andrew Kotting (mentioned in earlier posts). Funding is needed to complete the editing and can be contributed to via Kickstarter. Northampton resident Alan Moore is also involved - he's one of the contributors to the forthcoming Lord of Strange Deaths. A straw man from the Whittlesea Straw Bear festival plays a part - I visited this amazing event a few years ago and took some photos - one above.
The Motorpsycho show at the Jazz Cafe was excellent, a number of moments of pure transcendence - hard psychedelic rock, few traces of the prog evident on The Death Defying Unicorn (none of it was played) - guitarist from Dungen amazing on mellotron and guitar. Looking at their gear afterwards someone pointed out a set of Taurus bass pedals as used by Mike Rutherford of Genesis in the glory days; also got to meet the group backstage afterwards, which was nice.
Last week went to the Electric Palace to see the Mott Road Crew reminisce about working for Mott, David Bowie, Queen etc. Some interesting home movies from Morgan Fisher.
Also went to the London Fortean Society to see Gary Lachman give an impassioned talk to a very crowded room about the late Colin Wilson - Wilson's wife and daughter were there.
The William Burroughs walk I did with Bill Redwood will probably be repeated in early September, in the meantime another exhibition in London.
The Philosophytown weekend events can be found here. I'm speaking on Sunday, but hope to get there for Saturday.
It looks as if Lord of Strange Deaths, the book about Sax Rohmer may be appearing this summer, a bumper 400 pages now apparently. I've arranged an evening with Phil Baker, Gary Lachman and myself talking about Rohmer, Fu Manchu and the occult at Kensington Central Library in December. More details to follow.
Having just navigated my way through Bryan Magee's wonderfully lucid and readable The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (five star reviews here justified), of which more anon, I felt in need of some light relief, so I borrowed Walk the Lines, the London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason.
From June to December 2010 the author decided to follow the 250 miles (402 km) of London underground line, passing all 270 stations, above ground - of course 55% of the network is above ground anyway. This is the kind of eccentric journey memorably parodied many years ago in the Ripping Yarns episode Across the Andes by Frog. Mason succeeds in his task although one stretch of the Piccadilly line at Heathrow proves unwalkable and he reluctantly has to take the bus.
Sadly this book was never as interesting as I was hoping it might be. The absolute antithesis of the type of psychogeographical walking popularized by Iain Sinclair, it suffers considerably in comparison with say my favourite examples Lights Out for the Territory and London Orbital (the latter a similarly masochistic undertaking), both much better written and more magical, containing moments of real insight, with some brilliant descriptions and feeling for place. I got the impression from Mason's book that he'd become weary with his mission pretty early on and just wanted to get it out of the way - you can admire his stamina, but all too often very little is revealed about the many parts of London he passes through.
Too many times whole sweeps of London are dispensed with in a sentence and you long for more, especially the parts that are rarely written about. Admittedly some of these areas on the edge of the city are dull, but someone like Iain Sinclair can usually find some snippet of fascinating history or link with a writer, rather than trot out pub quiz trivia, as happens frequently here. The book is partially redeemed by some of the humorous comments and by the encounters with characters such as the woman taxi driver learning the Knowledge, biographer John Pearson and especially Bill Drummond, a man always full of unusual ideas (I heartily recommend his book 45), the latter showing up the shallowness of much that has gone before; without these interludes it's pretty thin gruel.
The idea of walking the Jubilee line at night might sound interesting, but it means that there's even less to see and comment on than in the other daylight walks - similarly walking the Metropolitan in the snow just before Christmas leaves you longing for a Betjeman to do it justice. On the whole it was an undemanding relaxing read, but I couldn't help but feel pretty disappointed by the time I'd finished. Oh, and the shop he passes in Charing Cross Road is not called "Let's fill this town with artists' but Cass Art -it's been an art shop for over 100 years - now that is worth mentioning. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh - the book is very readable and I'm sure many will enjoy it,
Apropos books written by London explorers I was reminded in a lengthy pub conversation a few weeks ago with Matt from the excellent Londonist to read Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou. I used to listen to Nick's broadcasts on Resonance and had made a mental note to buy the book, but as often happens, other distractions intervened - I have to admit I read very few London books these days but I shall try to get round to that one this year.
Battersea has been much in my mind this week. At work, the latest Survey of London volumes covering the architecture of the borough arrived and I spent an entertaining couple of hours yesterday truffling through, concentrating on Sir Walter St Johns School, industry by the river, railways, cinemas such as the Granada, Clapham Junction (scene of my cinematic education, especially when they were putting on double bills of action films and thrillers in the late 1970s) and Battersea Power Station. These more recent volumes also include cultural references so we obviously have Pink Floyd (not sure if The Who are mentioned), Up the Junction and even the infamous 'Battersea Smell' originating from the Garton's Glucose factory, which I used to walk past on my way to school - long gone and since redeveloped.
There's a site here for Battersea in film. The most famous film The Lavender Hill Mob was not actually filmed there, but a real obscurity called The Optimists of Nine Elms was - as schoolboys we saw the filming in Battersea High Street in the early Seventies - a friend of mine got me Peter Sellers' autograph (I've since mislaid it). Nostalgia also brought up Battersea Funfair, which I was often taken to in the 1960s. The industrial dereliction of the area was attractive to filmmakers and photographers during that period - the area is now much transformed with most riverside industry replaced by luxury apartment blocks such as Montevetro (not one of Richard Rogers' finest works).
All of this brings me to a walk I'm planning to do on Whistler (whose atmospheric Nocturnes feature views of Battersea Reach and the local smoke-shrouded industry such as Morgan's Crucibles) on Thursday 24th July starting at Chelsea Library at 6:00. More details when available.