Just before Christmas I bought another addition to the Art Collection, a drawing of a boxing match by Nina Hamnett, a Bohemian English artist who thrived in the Twenties and went into a slow alcoholic decline from the Thirties onward, culminating in a nasty death - probably suicide, although not proven. I've been reading my copy of Denise Hooker's Nina Hamnett Queen of Bohemia (which I've only just noticed has been inscribed by the author). It's well written and illustrated and tells you all you need to know. Portrait by Roger Fry (one of her many lovers) above.
Hamnett wrote two volumes of autobiography, the most celebrated of which is Laughing Torso (Constable, 1932), which became the subject of a widely publicised libel case courtesy of our old friend Aleister Crowley, who hoped to make some money out of it. Hamnett had included a section on the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu in Sicily (I took some exterior photos there a few years ago, see earlier post) where she says, 'He was supposed to practice Black Magic there, and one day a baby was said to have disappeared mysteriously. There was also a goat there.' Crowley claimed that he only performed White Magic. The trial resembles that of Whistler v Ruskin in terms of laughter in court. Crowley used a suitable analogy, in terms of this post, when describing different forms of magic: 'In boxing you can fight according to Queensberry rules or you can do the other thing.' 'Does that mean', counsel for Constable interposed, 'that his definition of Black Magic is the same as all-in wrestling?' The judge eventually delivered a damning verdict on the Great Beast: 'I have never heard such dreadful and horrible, blasphemous and abominable stuff as that which has been produced by a man who describes himself as the greatest living poet.' Crowley lost.
Learning that a friend had arranged an exhibition at the Claridge Gallery in Brook Street, opening on 13 April 1926, Hamnett returned from an extended period in Paris to live in the very heart of Fitzrovia. 'Nina stayed in the cheap and friendly Hotel de l’Etoile in  Charlotte
Street, where there were three or four bedrooms above the restaurant, and the
French atmosphere and petit dejeuner softened the blow of returning to
England.’ (Hooker p.173). The restaurant remains a renowned dining destination.
Hamnett became interested in boxing in the second half of the Twenties, which makes me think that this drawing dates from the period 1926-30. Her entrance to this new world was gained after meeting a young boxer called Vernon Campbell at the Fitzroy Tavern. He took her to a bout at the Comrade's Hall in Camden Town where she was delighted by the 'atmosphere of crude good humour and bawdy repartee'.
Hooker p.190: 'The promoter Johnny Hughes, an ex-flyweight champion, gave Nina a free pass and she took to going to Camden Town every week to draw, relieved to have found a way of killing the boredom of dreary Sunday afternoons, which always held a special horror for her. Nina quickly got to know the other regulars and when Campbell boxed she joined in the crowd of supporters cheering and showing "Come on Vernon!" Sometimes Nina and Campbell went to the big fights at Premierland Olympia and the Albert Hall. He also took her to Professor Newton's famous Academy of Boxing, off the Edgware Road, where she met the young boxers and drew them while they trained. The professor took a great liking to Nina and obligingly demonstrated the complexities of right hooks and upper cuts along with the rest of the boxing repertoire so that she became something of an expert on the finer points of the sport. Nina liked to air her knowledge to her friends and took large parties of up to fifteen people, which often included the poet Roy Campbell, to the Comrade's Hall, "basking in their clamour as if she were the entrepreneur of the event". After the matches at Camden Town - and later at the Charlton [sic] Ring, Euston - Nina and her friends would bring the heroes of the afternoon back to her room, where they drank tea and beer until the pubs opened. Nina did many drawings at the matches, some of which were included in the deluxe edition of Laughing Torso [I'll have to track this down] and she also persuaded some of the boxers to pose for her at home.'
My drawing must have been done at one of these bouts. As it was the major London boxing venue, there's a good deal of information about The Ring in Blackfriars Road (over the Thames in Southwark, bombed in the Blitz, commemorated by a pub today). Hamnett produced a number of works depicting fights there including The Ring at Blackfriars (watercolour) - sold by Sotheby's in 2002 see here (reproduced above). There's very little information online about the the Comrade's Hall and the Drill Hall in Camden Town and Chalton Ring (the correct spelling) in Somers Town. Chalton Street is a long road that runs pretty much the central length of Somers Town, at that time it was a predominantly working class district - suffering extensive damage in World War Two thanks to the three major main line stations close by - and was massively rebuilt in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly with council flats.
The reverse of the work is also of interest and the next post will be about that.
Yesterday I came across an excellent review from late last year of my apparently 'fabulous' book Decadent London. It can be found here. More importantly, the reviewer, a regular visitor to our shores named Saxon Henry, used it as a guidebook for visiting sites associated with the artists and writers described therein. I have done occasional Decadent London walks, but it's great to see the book being used in this way (a very limited early edition contained a route for such a walk along with some other home-produced ephemera). An old review from the Independent on Sunday can still be found here and another online one here (yes, 'it's title and dust jacket' - depicting Alan Odle - see earlier post here) does 'set out to attract ignorant but respectable [?] readers who would like a vicarious thrill from reading about the antics of the more daring and talented folks in London a century ago.' An interesting reference from Sotheby's here.
It would appear that it just about remains in print and can be bought on Amazon and can probably still be found in some real-world bookshops. Maybe I should revise it and republish it myself at some point.
Mark Ellen Rock Stars Stole My Life (2014)
A very funny account of Ellen's life as a music journalist, music magazine initiator and presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test. I defy any pop or rock music fan to read it all the way through without laughing out loud at least once. For example a description of NME journalist Nick Kent from Ellen's stint on the paper during its peak years:
'... the magnificent Nick Kent, whose arrival was preceded by great waves of expectation, especially among the girls. Would he be wearing his ripped leather trousers, and, if so, any pants beneath them? He'd finally levered himself off heroin but was so enfeebled by his methadone habit that the fine details of his physical appearance weren't a high priority. His legendary lack of undergarments wasn't a fashion statement: he'd either forgotten to attach any or didn't own a pair in the first place. Kent would wobble through reception in a stained hat, an off-white scarf that could have done with a wash, a Johnny Thunders T-shirt, jangling biker boots and severely torn trousers, a brace of swinging testicles visible from round the back. He had the crepuscular pallor of a nine-pint blood donor and legs like a wading bird's, so stick-thin and rickety you thought his knees might bend the wrong way. One hand brandished a glowing butt, the other several sheets of cardboard from cereal packets with his latest meisterwerk on them in spidery scrawl. His overstretched pockets carried two tins of cling peaches, the only solids apart from cornflakes the drug-addicted scribe could stomach.' [pp87-88]
'There appeared to be two types of people in the world, those who liked Van Morrison and those who'd met him.' [p276]
'One of those old-school hippies who found clothes restricting, [Iggy Pop] had rampaged round the [Chrysalis] press office stark naked, startling the girls with the stupendous size of his manhood. 'It was like a penis,' one of them shivered, 'only bigger.' [pp145-6]
Ellen is pretty candid about the drug use of his interviewees - he stopped indulging after a bad experience with The Teardrop Explodes - especially in a very funny description of a debauched night in the company of Roy Harper and Jimmy Page in the backroom of a Lake District pub [chapter 22 - an anecdote which also appeared in Barney Hoskyns' Trampled Underfoot, see earlier post]. The interview for Whistle Test the next morning with the hungover pair can be found here.
Alan McGee Creation Stories: Riots, Raves and Running a Label (2013)
A (remaindered) birthday present. Although billed as funny I found this much less entertaining than Ellen's autobiography, mainly because, understandably, it isn't nearly as well written. It's of more personal interest, however, as I was a regular at the Living Room, McGee's club above the Roebuck on Tottenham Court Road and often met, through my friend, Creation characters like Joe Foster and Jeff Barrett who feature in the book. One evening I bumped into all four Smiths watching a performance by James. I remember standing on a table at the back to see the Jesus and Mary Chain's first London appearance at the club. Like McGee I can recall the moment they walked in to the pub looking every inch the rock stars they were soon to become. I was also a fan of many of his acts such as House of Love, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Ride, but I've never been keen on Primal Scream (McGee's favourites) who I've always thought are musically a bit of a joke with a singer who can't sing. There are a few interesting anecdotes but heavy drug use has rendered some periods vague, worth dipping into though and brought back a lot of memories.
John Fordham The Knowledge: Jazz (2015)
Bought for a couple of quid at the local Works and probably destined for a charity shop, this is an adequate condensed history of jazz, frustratingly short on the areas I was interested in (60s and 70s), but made me listen to people like Charlie Christian who I'd never heard before.
I was very pleased to find a review of Lord of Strange Deaths by Rosemary Herbert - 'King of Pulp Exotica' - in this week's Times Literary Supplement. Maybe Secret Tunnels of England may also appear there one day.
Yesterday, as I was in the vicinity, I managed to get to Eland Road in Battersea, south west London, to take a photograph of the house which in 1928 was home to the mysterious 'Battersea Poltergeist', which garnered considerable publicity at the time and drew large crowds to the street. It was investigated by Harry Price and his account appears in his book Poltergeist Over England - it's available online here, so I don't have to go into further detail. A photo of the house in 1928 and in 2005 can be found here. Interesting that the poltergeist appeared keen on throwing soap, a feature of the Borley 'poltergeist' sixteen months later, in which Price also played a major role.
The remarkable activity that greeted the arrival of Price at an investigation is also commented on in an extract from SPR files about the Battersea case, written by Dr V J Woolley assisted by a Mrs Brackenbury, reproduced in The Haunting of Borley Rectory (1956) pp.73-4:
'Mr Price accompanied by two reporters had paid them another visit ... Their story is that he and his friends were shown into the front sitting room to wait. There was not much furniture in this room but on the mantel shelf there were two metal figures of children. Mr Price and his friends were taken all over the house and finally into the kitchen. The two reporters turned to leave, Mr Price was behind them with Lilla and Mrs Perkins standing near him, when suddenly something dropped to the floor, they say it fell with a heavy thud. They all hunted but could find nothing until Mr Price picked up a shoe and found inside it one of the two little metal figures that had been in the front room on his arrival ... After he left they asked me if I thought he was a medium and attracted things to him. I said it was not probable. They complained things always seemed to happen when he was there.'
If I manage to keep my job I'm hoping to organise some talks and walks for the spring and summer. More news will appear here.
Sunday 22 January David Torn - Son of Goldfinger, with Tim Berne and Ches Smith. Guitarist who's played with David Bowie, been meaning to check him out for years, but he doesn't play in this country very often. At the Vortex. I did manage to get there - online review here.
Friday 27 Jaga Jazzist Roundhouse. What We Must is a stupendous record and I saw them at the Astoria in London around that time - haven't really been keeping up, but the latest record sounds great.
Tuesday 28 February Hastings Fat Tuesday. I really enjoyed last year's bash when The Membranes were the main attraction, but there's plenty of opportunities to check out local talent (sets only last 20 minutes). The refurbished Albion is one of the best venues. Details here.
Tuesday 7 March Oxley/Meier Guitar Duo Jazz Hastings Club. Nicholas Meier is in Jeff Beck's band.
I was shocked and upset to hear of the death of Mark Fisher last Friday - he had a lot of important things to say about the present human condition. I met him on a couple of occasions and he was a lovely stimulatingly philosophical man. There have been a number of pieces about him in the links column opposite in the last couple of days - for example herehere and here.
Christopher de Hamel Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (2016) A Christmas present. Slowly making my way through - each chapter is devoted to a particular ancient manuscript and the library in which it is housed. The author, Cambridge academic and librarian, is an expert in his subject and creates the impression that the reader is looking over his shoulder as he carefully turns the pages of these manuscript masterpieces and imparts his wisdom about the materials, history of the document and its possible producers and owners, and the iconography. Lavishly illustrated, although maybe should have been a larger format. Highly recommended.
Guy Halsall Worlds of Arthur, Facts & Fictions of the Dark Ages (2013) Written by a professor of history at York University, the title is rather misleading as 'King Arthur' is relegated to a very minor role and pretty much dismissed as a historical figure and the author is more interested in putting forward theories about the 'Dark Ages' and Anglo Saxon invasions. Also I was disappointed with his promised examination of the 'lunatic fringe' literature, which I feel is often worth examining for some of the insights into the authors' mentalities or the zeitgeist, despite their negligible worth as historical research. Worth reading together with King Arthur Myth Making and History (2002) by N J Higham, another modern sceptical analysis of the Arthurian legend.
Paul Morley Earthbound (2013) One of a series of books commissioned by Penguin themed around the London Underground lines by a variety of authors (I wonder how much they got paid?), this one is ostensibly about the Northern line, but is of course mostly about Paul Morley. His claim to be possibly the first person in London with a Sony Walkman should be treated with caution, I feel. Quite entertaining none the less, and can be read in a single sitting. Clever cover picture.
Leonard Cottrell The Bull of Minos (1966) Pan paperback hagiography of 'archaeologists' or maybe that should be 'diggers' Heinrich Schliemann and Arthur Evans, which I imagine has been thoroughly discredited by more recent research. An easy and stimulating read however.
John Mortimer Rumple Forever A compilation of stories of Rumple of the Bailey. I never saw the television series with Leo McKern and have not previously read any Rumple stories, but I needed some relaxing bedtime reading. Some of the humour is a bit strained, but pleasant enough reading. At this rate, my middle-aged self may well finally get round - after years of resistance - to Jeeves and Wooster. Rumpole's first television appearance in the hugely important Play for Today BBC series can be seen here.
1977. Punk was making a big impact and like many other teenagers at the time I listened to John Peel for the latest records by the likes of the Sex Pistols, Damned and Stranglers. However, I was saving my pocket money for a handsome-looking 3 disc compilation that had garnered glowing reviews in the music press: Soft Machine Triple Echo, a compilation of the first 10 years of the group. It came in a striking box with a twelve-inch booklet with lots of photos and one of Pete Frame's excellent family trees. I knew next to nothing about them, but I recognised the names of some of the former members, especially the seminal first incarnation 'dream' group of Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayres, Daevid Allen and Mike Ratledge - along with Pink Floyd probably the most interesting and creative of the British psychedelic bands. Fortunately I still have Triple Echo.
The first two lps are brimful with avant garde ideas and the beginning of Wyatt's post-modern playfulness with lyrics and deconstruction of songs ('thanks for this coda Mike, you've done us proud'). This was also a characteristic of later groups such as Hatfield & the North - all part of the Canterbury Scene, together with others such as Caravan, Egg, Khan, Steve Hillage etc. who in many cases were more jazz-influenced than most prog groups of the time. My favourite track on Triple Echo was The Moon in June, Wyatt's contribution to the double album Third - however this was a specially-recorded Top Gear version radically different from that on the lp (I only heard the original a couple of years ago) with alternative lyrics and a stunning Lowrey organ solo from Ratledge. Another live version here.
The received wisdom has been that after Third the group became less interesting in its quest to become yet another fusion band. Many members were drawn from Nucleus - a fascinating group that really needs a reassessment - the first three or four lps are definitely worth checking out. In the later records there's interesting use of synths and sequencers and after years of operating without a guitarist the group had two (at different times) of the most proficient from the 70s: Allan Holdsworth and John Etheridge.
A couple of weeks back I made my way to the Borderline off Charing Cross Road to see Soft Machine Legacy. Confounding my expectations, the joint was absolutely rammed (to an almost unsafe degree by the entrance) - luckily there was an interval and I managed to find a less congested spot further back. It's basically some of the Softs lineup: Etheridge on guitar, Roy Babbington on bass, the ubiquitous Theo Travis on sax, flute and keyboards - John Marshall was unwell and Nic France from Travis's Doubletalk was on drums. A really good show with old songs interspersed with the new (they are not a self-tribute act) - a few of the later classics, Facelift, Kings and Queens, and two of my favourites: Hazard Profile 1 and Tale of Taliesin. Needless to say, they didn't play Why Are We Sleeping or We Did It Again (sadly).
Also recently saw Three Trapped Tigers at the rather shabby Heaven near Charing Cross. Much younger crowd and a genuinely exciting live band: volcanic guitar (doing some interesting stuff with harmonics), heavy keyboards and a drummer on steroids and Duracell batteries. They are usually classified as a jazz band, but if they ever appeared at the Hastings Jazz Club (I wish) most of the punters would head for the doors after the first guitar thrash. Highly recommended. Some music here (played on the night and reminding me of Todd Rundgren's Utopia c.1975) and here.
Having said that, Jazz Hastings is a very worthwhile venture and is apparently in some financial difficulties. There is a benefit performance to help remedy this situation on Tuesday 10th January featuring such eminent players as Jason Yarde and James MacMillan. See you there.
Jim Godbolt All This and 10% Published in 1976, this is the memoir of jazz fanatic and booking agent Godbolt, who was involved for many years with, amongst others, the careers of George Melly and Mick Mulligan. Melly's autobiography of life on the road with a jazz band in the 1950s Owning Up is a wonderful book and reminds us that the 'rock'n'roll lifestyle' was being lived well before the 60s. Godbolt's account offers an interesting sidelight. He claims to have introduced (via Damon Runyon) the phrase 'hooray Henry' to the lexicon - the female equivalent being a Henrietta and offers some amusing and at times score-settling (although not as vivid as some of Melly's) descriptions of characters on the British jazz scene at the time. At the end of the book we find Godbolt working for the Gerry Bron organisation (whose most famous act was probably Uriah Heep), but disillusioned with the pop and rock of the early 70s - Alice Cooper and David Bowie are singled out for their depravity. After retiring from the music business he apparently spent some time as a meter reader for the Electricity Board. This book was updated in 1986 as All This and Many a Dog: Memoirs of a Loser/Pessimist. He also wrote a history of jazz. Looking him up online I found he died fairly recently at an advanced age. Obituaries here and here.
This inspired me to re-read Owning Up for the umpteenth time - it's stood the test of time and I still found myself laughing out loud at certain passages - it's also very good at evoking the dark dreary towns of the 1950s with their awful 'digs' and drinking cultures as he endlessly traverses the country.
'The flavour of the different regional landscapes was enough: the flat featureless Dutch-like farmland of Lincolnshire; the honey-coloured stone and intimate scale of the West Country; the sprawling suburb of the Midlands; the hunting-print look of Cheshire and Shropshire; the kilns of the Potteries and the chimneys of the industrial north; the wild moors along the Pennines where the sheep are always black with the soot of Lancashire and Yorkshire.' (p.103)
The more I find out about Hastings the stranger the town becomes. Lord Tiverton who, like his friend Screaming Lord Sutch, seems to have invented his title - in fact he was Derek Howell, health food millionaire - lived in the Old Town and died in October 1999. According to the Evening Argus:
'The short route from Tiver's home above a shop in the historic Old Town of Hastings to the nearby St Clement's Church was packed with those eager to pay their last respects. A jazz band led the hearse, followed by a lively procession of mourners including members of the Monster Raving Loony Party of which Tivers was appointed chairman shortly before his death. Sadly he never heard the good news.'
He lived at 49 George Street, which, according to an article I found online, was decorated in an eccentric style. Unfortunately, I've been unable to find any images online of the interior, so the imagination will have to serve. Above, a general picture of the north side of George Street where the house is located.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact