Thursday, 22 June 2017

Holborn Talk



I shall be giving a talk about 'Tunnels Under Holborn' on the evening of Thursday 13th July.  It's for The Friends of Lincoln's Inn  Fields, but I understand that anyone who's interested can come along.

The talk will be held at No.32 Lincoln's Inn Fields (the Old Land Registry building, now part of the London School of Economics).  It will start at 7.00 and I believe it's free.

An Eventbrite booking site will be up soon.

Books will be for sale at the usual discount.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Publishing and Event News


Today in Hastings I had an enjoyable lunch with an interesting chap called Gareth Brookes (not to be confused with country superstar Garth Brooks).  He's a graphic novelist/comic artist based in London who produces his work with linocut and embroidery - it therefore takes years to complete one book.

Take a look at his work here.

Work on the republication of one of my most popular recent books is continuing - I am hoping to have more news in the next month or so.

I have discovered this week that three of my books with Historical Publications are now out of print:

London's Coffee Houses, a Stimulating Story details

Decadent London details

Folklore of London details

There are a few copies remaining and I will be selling them at talks this year, or online when I have hopefully set up the facilities later in the year.

Don't forget the two London talks (tickets still available):

Christopher Josiffe on Gef the Talking Mongoose on 23 June.  Book here.

Kieron Tyler on The Damned on 7th July.  Book here.

Monday, 15 May 2017

King Mob, Malcolm McLaren and Selfridges


My most popular post has been The Mystery of Subterranean Selfridges wherein I excavate the widespread rumour that there exists beneath the famous Selfridges department store on Oxford Street a row of well-preserved Victorian shops complete with cobbled street.  The conclusion I have drawn, is that it is an ingenious and charming piece of modern folklore in the form of a prank perpetrated by the late Sex Pistols manager, performer and clothes designer Malcolm McLaren through the medium of his Channel 4 film The Ghosts of Oxford Street see here.  The post and its various addenda can be found here.

I hadn't realised that McLaren's interest in Oxford Street went as far back as 1970 when he chose to make a film about the tawdry commercial thoroughfare as an art project at Goldsmith's College, when he was known as Malcolm Edwards; it was known as the Oxford Street film.

According to Jon Savage's definitive 1991 Sex Pistols history (see also Music For Pleasure post below for The Damned) England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock: 'Due to lack of money and lack of conceptual focus, Oxford Street drifted along for eighteen months before being left unfinished....when it came to shooting, Malcolm involved a variety of his friends at various points, Jamie Reid was used as cameraman and Helen [Mininberg] as assistant director.  They worked around Oxford Street: the shot list includes many shop facades and exteriors, as well as close-ups of advertisements and human gestures of frustration and incorporate hostility.  They were hampered by the fact that hardly any of the stores would allow them access: only Selfridges let them in.' (p.40)  The project was hugely influenced by McLaren's interest in the ideas of the Situationist International (too much to go into here, see England's Dreaming and Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989).

Reading King Mob Echo: From Gordon Riots to Situationists and Sex Pistols by Tom Vague (2000) on Saturday reminded me of a notorious incident at Christmas 1968 at Selfridges when a member of British Situationist offshoot King Mob dressed as Father Christmas and accompanied by fellow Mob members walked into the store and started taking toys off the shelves and giving them to grateful children.  'Not long afterwards,' Richard Neville wrote in Playpower (1970), 'shoppers were treated to the spectacle of police confiscating toys from small children and arresting Santa Claus.'  A flyer saying IT WAS MEANT TO BE GREAT BUT IT'S HORRIBLE was also handed out (see pic above).

In England's Dreaming McLaren claimed to be part of this protest: 'We were all handing out the toys and the kids were running off.  The store detectives and the police started to pounce:  I ran off into the lift.  There's just me and this old lady: the doors start to open and I can just see all these police.  I grab the old lady really tight and walk through like I'm helping her.  As soon as I got out of the store, I belted out of there.' (p.34)  But, he later admitted:'That was organised by Christopher Gray and the Wise twins were involved as well.  I never actually went to it but I heard of it.In those days nobody would tell you how things were going to work.  There was all this rumour and hype.  So, no I was never involved as such.' (King Mob Echo p.47)

More on King Mob here.

Nevertheless McLaren definitely had previous as far as Selfridges was concerned.

To quote again from England's Dreaming (p.36):  'The libertarian currents of the late 1960s shaped the lives of many of those that they touched: for Malcolm McLaren and his associates, like Fred Vermorel and Jamie Reid life would never be the same.  In those currents they could swim, and select a language for their multiple angers, resentments and ideals.  It was largely through the SI's (Situationist International) influence that they developed a taste for a new media practice - manifestos, broadsheets, montages, pranks, disinformation - which would give form to their gut feeling that things could be moved, if not irreversibly changed.'

Incidentally, Guy Debord's Situationists were also interested in the Limehouse area of East London and held a meeting there.  Limehouse was of course the haunt of Sax Rohmer's fiendish Fu Manchu and a piece on this cultural crossover appears in the book I edited with Phil Baker:  Lord of Strange Deaths.   See also here and here.

Bulldog Jack



I've been watching a large number of Hammer and other classic British (and a few American) horror films recently, most of them online.  I may write more about these in a later post.  I was astonished by how many films are now freely available online (whatever the legal situation of them being there), many in very good quality versions - others are of a quality or in a format that is unwatchable and detrimental to the film.

I used Jonathan Rigby's English Gothic as my guide, and pretty readable and reliable it is - he was rather more effusive about some films than I would be, but that's his opinion and his area of interest/obsession.  The ones I enjoyed most (and they are easy to locate online) were: Tam Linn (The Devil's Window), Kiss of the Vampire, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, The Shout, Horror Express, The House That Dripped Blood and City of the Dead.  I enjoyed the much-derided Blood Beast Terror more than I should have, but Cry of the Banshee, set in the 17th century, disappointingly didn't actually feature a banshee at all and included a witch screaming to reveal a mouth full of fillings and Sally Geeson being shot with a gun probably last seen in the hands of Billy the Kid.  This being the early 1970s, no opportunity is lost to expose the breasts of the female members of the cast.  (It does, however, feature opening credits by the young Terry Gilliam, which are better than the film itself).

Another film that I finally got to see was Bulldog Jack, previously hard to track down.   You can watch it here. As with the other film that I had written about in one of my books, without being able to actually see it at the time, The Ghosts of Oxford Street  (see earlier post) - what I had read about it and used for my research was not strictly accurate; it's always a problem having to rely on other people's accounts and reviews.

Bulldog Jack is a moderately entertaining adventure with Jack Hulbert, standing in for an injured Drummond (the James Bond of his period), attempting to thwart a gang of counterfeiters holed up in a disused underground station called Bloomsbury.  The impressive cast also features Fay Wray (of King Kong fame) as the damsel in distress and Ralph Richardson (looking like Henry Spencer of Eraserhead, with a moustache) as the criminal mastermind.  It's better than I was expecting and the final scene aboard a runaway tube train (probably not the first of its kind, certainly emulated many times since - one thinks of Speed for example) is pretty exciting.

The abandoned tube station, while obviously a set, is realistic and atmospheric and there is the inevitable walk along a tube tunnel to reach it, avoiding trains on the way.  One detail that I had repeated in Subterranean City and elsewhere, taken from books on abandoned stations, was that there was a secret entrance to the station in an opening mummy case in the British Museum, enabling the criminal gang to gain access to the treasures and replace some valuable jewels with copies.  Having seen the film it is clear that it is not a mummy at all, but the stone sarcophagus of a monarch, probably Elizabeth I, the lid of which rises up vertically on jacks.  Hulbert manages to get into the passage by jamming it with a conveniently placed  block of stone.

Horror films with memorable tube settings are: Creep, Death Line, American Werewolf in London and of course my all-time favourite Quatermass and the Pit.  Honourable mentions for conspiracy thriller Hidden City for its imaginative underground locations and the Dr Who story Web of Fear.




Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Gef Finally Returns



I announced the imminent publication by Strange Attractor of Christopher Josiffe's book about the remarkable case of Gef the Talking Mongoose some months ago.  Finally, it will be published next month.  There will be a launch (thanks to London Fortean Society) at Conway Hall on Tuesday 6 June.  See here.

Much as I would like to go, I probably won't be able to.  However, I am trying to arrange a talk by the author at Westminster Reference Library for June or July, where copies will also be available to buy.

THIS FREE EVENT CAN NOW BE BOOKED THROUGH EVENTBRITE HERE

Gef, of course, is yet another sensational case associated with Harry Price (see posts passim).  I'm not writing a book about Price, by the way, he just seems to crop up in most of the research I do these days.

Talking of which, today I found a very useful and diligently researched site dedicated to the lesser-known initiates of the Golden Dawn.  See here.  Unsurprisingly, Sax Rohmer (Arthur Sarsfield Ward) does not appear in the list, despite claims that he was a member.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Music For Pleasure?


Apologies for the paucity of posts recently, much time has been spent revising and updating one of my previous books for re-publication (hopefully) later this year, with some accompanying promotional events.   Having a copy of Hart's Rules on your desk can be a mixed blessing when going through earlier work with a fine tooth comb.  Also, more time needs to be spent promoting Accumulator Press.   More news here in the next few weeks.

I've just read Smashing It Up, a Decade of Chaos with The Damned, an excellent biography of the neglected punk pioneers by Kieron Tyler.  Here's what Peter Doggett thinks of it:

'The Story of The Damned has been the black hole at the heart of the British punk scene - until now.  In Smashing It Up Kieron Tyler's meticulous research, in-depth interviews, and intelligent perspective has unearthed a saga as compelling and ridiculous as any in British rock history.  His chronicle of a band in a state of permanent artistic and emotional tumult not only gives The Damned their due at last, but forces us to rethink much of the accepted history of punk itself.'  Peter Doggett, author of Electric Shock: From the Gramopohone to the iPhone, 125 Years of Pop Music.

The author will be talking about his book on the evening of Friday 7 July at Westminster Reference Library, 35 St Martin's St, London, WC2H 7HP.

BOOKING FOR THIS FREE EVENT IS NOW OPEN ON EVENTBRITE  here

Here's a review of the new release from English Heretic.  I'm hoping to do another event with them later this year.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Piltdown




Earlier this month we managed to visit Piltdown, a quiet place.  Down a lane you can find the entrance gates to Markham Manor (my photos above).  To quote from the book reviewed below (p.267):  'There is no regular tourist access to the manor today, but behind the gates, a series of coppiced trees can be seen flanking the long approach to the house, just as they did in the photographs in 1912 and 1913.  Somewhere in the middle distance lies the backfilled gravel pit, once the centre of attention for the world's press.  Next to it a single sandstone monolith stands, forgotten and somewhat forlorn, within the modern hedgerow.  Despite the covering of lichen it is still just possible to read the inscription carved into the face of the stone:

Here in the old river gravel Mr Charles Dawson FSA,
found the fossil skull of Piltdown Man 1912-1913.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Piltdown Man, Charles Dawson and Harry Price




Miles Russell Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson & the World’s Greatest Arcaheological Hoax (2003)

An absorbing study that concentrates on Charles Dawson, the man who found the so-called Piltdown Man ‘missing link’ in a gravel pit near the hamlet of Piltdown in West Sussex.  Having read this book most readers will have little doubt that Dawson was solely responsible for the Piltdown Man hoax, despite the fact that many others have been accused over the years, most ridiculously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (although according to this book his novel The Lost World, published in 1912, may have played a part in inspiring the deception).  Russell lays out his case carefully and methodically, cannily preparing the ground with a lengthy and detailed examination of Dawson’s ‘antiquarian’ collections, parts of which he exhibited in the years before Piltdown.  Almost every piece examined is found to be a fake, of dubious provenance, or a (deliberate?) misinterpretation – tellingly some of these pieces were claimed by Dawson to provide a ‘missing link’ between species or advances in technology.

There are many connections with Hastings (about thirty miles from Piltdown) - Dawson lived in St Leonards as a boy and many of his remarkable ‘finds’ were supposedly dug up in the surrounding area.  He wrote a detailed history of Hastings Castle and worked on a dig that cleared and mapped the ‘secret’ tunnels under the castle.  Yet again, all was not what it seemed: Dawson claimed that as an eight-year-old boy he had seen strange shadowy marks on the walls of one of these tunnels when he had been shown round by the proprietor.  

Much later in life he recalled that the marks strongly resembled the shapes of two men standing against the tunnel walls in close proximity to metal staples to which they could have been manacled (he made a drawing), thus his conclusion was that these tunnels had to be ‘dungeons’, a name which has stuck to this day (rather than the cellars and storage areas which they most likely were).   Dawson was fond of dungeons and had one constructed at his Lewes house, Castle Lodge, which he acquired in 1904 from the Sussex Archaeological Society (he was a member) in highly dubious circumstances, resulting in his being virtually ostracised (remarkably, the massively publicised Piltdown discoveries were not mentioned in the society’s journal). 

It does seem surprising these days how readily Piltdown Man was accepted by the scientific community – there were some naysayers at the time, but they received little support.  Russell explains how Dawson had motive and means – one witness claims to have discovered him one day in his solicitor’s office experimenting with discolouring bones (!).  Palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward would appear to have been a ‘useful idiot’ (rather than part of the hoax) for Dawson in the authentication of the remains.  There is also the hoaxer’s standard modus operandi: he conveniently produced what the scientists of that time were eagerly hoping to find.  Nationalism also entered into events, as previous finds of early man had been on the continent.  Finally England could claim its own spectacular discovery – it’s significant that Woodward’s book was called The Earliest Englishman (not published until 1948 – the hoax was only uncovered in 1953).

For me, an intriguing aspect of the story is Dawson’s possible links with Harry Price (see previous posts), who began his quest for recognition and publicity through a series of apparently important archaeological finds within a short distance of his house in Pulborough.  According to Richard Morris in Harry Price The Psychic Detective (2006):

‘It is absolutely conceivable that Dawson and Price worked together.  They had plenty of opportunities to meet each other, as both were active in the Sussex Archaeological Society and were members of the Royal Societies Club, that most prestigious social club of scientists and industrialists.  Furthermore Price and Dawson would have shared patrons and supporters. (p.32)

Unfortunately, Morris does not produce any evidence, such as correspondence, for their friendship or cooperation.

Dawson and Price both craved academic credibility: Dawson was the more impressive in that, despite having never attended university and holding down a job as a solicitor in Uckfield (the firm is still there), he possessed a lively and inquiring mind and could lecture on a wide variety of subjects well beyond archaeology; he was a member of the Society of Antiquaries.  Much of Price’s knowledge of archaeology was bluff or plagiarised.  Price enjoyed incredibly good fortune with his archaeological discoveries, many of which were found on the surface, so he didn’t even have to get his hands dirty.  An unusually well-preserved Roman statuette of Hercules was pulled out of the river bank at the end of his garden.  He was eventually caught out after a Roman silver ingot, ‘which I picked up in 1909 on the surface of a ploughed field on top of park Mount, Pulborough’ was proved to be a fake.   It bore a mark which indicated that it may well have dated from the period of Honorius at the very end of Roman occupation, making it even more significant.  Coincidentally, Roman bricks found by Dawson at Pevensey Castle and exhibited in 1907 also bore a mark of Honorius – they too were later proved to be fakes.


If anyone reading this is aware of closer links between Price and Dawson I would be interested to know.

The Visitors' Book




Jon Lys Turner The Visitors’ Book, In Francis Bacon’s Shadow: The Lives of Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller (2016).  After a shaky start the book gains momentum and I found it very interesting, but then I would, as it features the usual  Soho and Fitzrovia suspects - many mentioned in these posts - such as John Minton,  Nina Hamnett (a good friend of Wirth-Miller) and the Two Roberts, who  frequently stayed with them.  Jankel Adler’s name keeps cropping up in many of the biographies I’ve read recently – he seems to have been influential on many of the London artists of this period and his reputation may be in need of resuscitation.   His influence on the Two Roberts, for example, is clear.  See here and here.

Wirth-Miller was from a very humble background and suffered in early life for his German ancestry – the book hints that his artistic influence on Francis Bacon may have been greater than previously recognised, the two certainly worked together in the Wivenhoe studio.  Lucian Freud hated him (he referred to him as ‘Worth Nothing’) see here.  Nevertheless, Wirth-Miller and Chopping mixed in highly privileged circles and had influential friends and acquaintances (not least Ian Fleming in Chopping’s case), one of whom was avid social climber and interior designer David Hicks, who included Wirth-Miller’s art in his designs - financially useful, but this made him perilously tied to fashion, that inevitably changed.

There is an entertaining account of Hicks’ wedding to Lord Mountbatten’s daughter Pamela:  the weather was freezing blizzards – fortunately for the many guests, they had the use of a private Pullman train back to London.  Chopping narrowly saved one of the guests from being run over by a skidding bus – it turned out to be Noel Coward, who became a friend.  Hicks and his wife had a honeymoon cruise on the QE2, the only passengers apparently, which seems incredible.  Winston Churchill’s son Randolph comes across as a truly horrible individual and as with many wealthy people expected the artists to produce work for him for nothing.


Wirth-Miller was probably Bacon’s best and most loyal friend.  There is a terrible episode where WM has an exhibition in a local gallery - Bacon arrives drunk and proceeds to go round savagely criticising every picture.  This had such an effect on WM that he gave up painting from that point.  The book says that this traumatic incident didn’t affect their friendship, which again is hard to believe.  In later life WM seems to have been a drunken monster and the kind of foul-mouthed outspoken boor you would avoid sitting close to in a restaurant or pub.   His artistic reputation is not high these days.  Looking at the auction prices for his paintings, they are not valuable and are almost in my price bracket.  Despite some strange neologisms (infirmed?) and misspellings (tenor Peter Piers?) the writing carries you along and I enjoyed reading it.

Postscript:  I've since visited the Queer British Art 1861-1967 show at Tate Britain and one of the exhibits is mentioned in the book: Wirth Miller and Chopping's tin where they kept a button from the uniform of every member of the armed forces with whom they had a sexual liaison - it's a very full tin, with almost two hundred buttons.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Mummified Cats

While reading Jon Lys Turner’s The Visitors’ Book (London: Constable, 2016), a biography of the artists Richard Chopping (designer of the striking early trompe l’oeil covers of Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers) and Denis Wirth-Miller, I came across a ‘mummified cat’ tale.  The artists lived as a gay couple for sixty years in an attractive eighteenth-century wooden building known as the Storehouse (formerly a public house and later a sail store) next to the river Colne in Wivenhoe, Essex.

At some point in the early 1960s: ‘When a group of builders dismantled part of the roof of the Storehouse in order to convert an attic space into a new bedroom, they discovered the body of a blackened but otherwise preserved cat.  One of the contractors recalled a story his grandfather had told him: when buildings were topped out in eighteenth-century Wivenhoe, a live cat would be released into the roof before it was sealed – it was believed that the trapped animal’s spirit would ward off fire.

Wirth-Miller examined the mummified cat and said, “It’s rather beautiful – like a feline Modigliani.”  Chopping reported that he was warier of its supposed supernatural powers.’ (The Visitors’ Book p.260)

Wirth-Miller and Chopping were good friends with fellow artist Francis Bacon and in November 1963, after an afternoon’s heavy drinking, at the famous Colony Room in Dean Street, Wirth-Miller, Bacon and his then boyfriend George Dyer, decided to take a taxi back to Wivenhoe to continue the party.  Following a late night dinner they returned to the Storehouse very drunk.  A while later Bacon came back from the toilet saying that the house was on fire.  The storeroom at the rear of the house used to store ‘canvases, paperwork, old books and junk’ was ablaze.  The fire engines that were summoned used water from the river to dowse the flames, but the storeroom and kitchen had been badly damaged. 

The cause of the fire was never determined, although it was suspected that George Dyer had drunkenly flicked a cigarette butt out of the toilet window situated above the storeroom. 

Of course, the way in which the narrative unfolds implies that the earlier disturbance of the desiccated feline may have been in some way responsible for the blaze.

While some valuable works of art were lost in the fire, the artists were fortunate in securing the services of a young and then-unknown Terence Conran (he taught at the Royal College of Art, with Chopping) who agreed to design a chic new kitchen in exchange for a Wirth-Miller landscape. 

‘One object that did survive was the mummified cat, which would end up in a drawer in a guest bedroom.  Wirth-Miller, who was fond of a practical joke, was amused by the idea of visitors discovering the artefact as they unpacked.’ (p.263)

Mummified cats are also the subject of a chapter in my book The Folklore of London.  See here and here.