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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
If anyone reading this is aware of closer links between
Price and Dawson I would be interested to know.
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
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.
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
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.
Nina Hamnett wrote a second volume of autobiography Is She a Lady?(1955) which picks up her story from 1926 when she returned from France
to Fitzrovia. Compiled might be a better word, as the book is really just a string of anecdotes, many rather inconsequential, probably of the kind with which she would regale a visitor to the Fitzroy or Wheatsheaf after asking them to 'Buy me a drink deah'. It does, however, cover the period when I believe my drawing was made and the book sheds more light on her interest in boxing – another way
of socializing and meeting young men and staving off the boredom of
On Premierland, a boxing venue in East London (see here) ‘by far the most amusing and entertaining
show in London.The hall held
about two thousand people and a battle nearly always raged near the ringside. The audience never ceases to scream out insults and vulgar
jokes at the unfortunate boxers who are unpopular from opening to closing
time. The payment is
terrible. There is any amount of
talent to be discovered, but, as they all have to work, they never have
sufficient time to train unless, by some extraordinary stroke of luck, someone
pays for their training.’(p.51) She
mentions making drawings on many occasions.
Prof Newton’s Academy of Boxing 241 Marylebone Road: 'I went down one Sunday to see the boys training and to
meet the great Professor. Sunday
morning is the best time, as most of them have to work during the week, many as
navvies. Nipper Pat Daly was then
in his prime. He was a funny
little boy of fifteen and a half, and a very fine boxer. If ever there should have been a
champion it ought to have been Nipper.’ (p.49)
One of the book’s illustrations is a signed photo of Daly, who was a bit of a local celebrity at the time, a photo of Daly with the Professor and more information here.
She also mentions staying at the Hotel l'Etoile: (p.12) ‘I invited people to lunch and dine with me at my
hotel, not worrying much about the future, as I had been paid for the drawings
in Seymour’s book [Seymour
Leslie The Silent Amen (Jonathan Cape 1927]. ' Perhaps the list of names on the back of the drawing are those she entertained there. She also illustrated The People's Album of London Statues - with droll commentary from Osbert Sitwell, it is the source, as I discovered, of his description of William Huskisson's statue in Pimlico as 'boredom rising from the bath'. Illustrations of both books above.
Many characters acquainted with Aleister Crowley pop up in the book including Nancy Cunard, Lord Tredegar and that strange individual William Seabrook. She produced a portrait of the speedboat racer 'Joe' Carstairs , who I'd never heard of before, but seems interesting (can't trace the picture).
In conclusion on Hamnett I should also direct those interested to the always excellent Strange Flowers resource. A film was made about her starring Siobhan Fahey out of Bananarama.
David Hepworth 1971 Never a Dull Moment (2016) By Mark Ellen's partner-in-crime in the magazine world and co-presenter of Whistle Test. An enthusiastic month-by-month account of the musicians, the music industry and most importantly, the long players put out during one year that Hepworth wants to claim as the most significant in the history of rock and roll. He's probably right when you look at some of the exhibits he puts forward: There's A Riot Going On, Tapestry, Led Zeppelin IV, Tago Mago, Loaded, Sticky Fingers, Aqualung, What's Going On, Electric Warrior (first lp I bought), Master of Reality, Fog on the Tyne, Inner Mounting Flame, Meddle, American Pie etc. I get the impression that Who's Next and Hunky Dory are probably his favourites, but he makes good cases for many more. He's not a fan of progressive rock, but that year saw the appearance of such genre classics as Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition, The Yes Album, Fragile and Nursery Cryme.
It's interesting to be reminded of prices and the way of life at a time when I was alive: eg. pint of bitter 15p, house in North London £20,000, very little obesity. He has some insightful observations, most notably about the beginnings of 'heritage rock' and its absorption into show business even at that point, although he does describe the unpleasant conditions at the majority of music festivals and it's easy to forget that until relatively recently some rock concerts could be pretty violent and dangerous.
Edward Lucie-Smith Symbolist Art (1972)
Paul Strathern The Knowledge: The Periodic Table (2015) Another bargain from The Works.
Michael Oliver Benjamin Britten (1996) Thought I should vary my diet of music biographies.
H G Wells The Time Machine (first published 1895) Always worth rereading, now and again.
Denise Hooker Nina Hamnett, Queen of Bohemia (1986) See posts below.
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